It’s a scam! (History and origin of the word ‘scam.’)

In honor of my coming a step closer than I ever had before to falling victim of an Internet trick this week, the Friday word is: scam.

Fortunately, I realized what was going on long before the point where I forked over any useful personal information, let alone any money. But with the concept of scam fresh on my mind, I wondered: is there anything especially interesting or noteworthy about the word itself?

I was surprised to learn both that the word is actually quite new and that its origin is essentially unknown (“origin obscure” as OED puts it, but probably American). The other major dictionaries take the same stance.

OED cites three definitions for the noun, all contemporaneous: a swindle (1963), a fraudulent bankruptcy (1966), and a rumor (1964). One of the examples given suggests that users at the time (mid ’60s) believed scam to originally be a carnival term, meaning ‘to fleece the public.’ Although this is included in an early example, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not actually given as the origin of the word (suggesting that someone’s done research down this route and so far come up empty).

AHD and Merriam-Webster add nothing further to the origin stories, and cite similar (if not identical) first uses as OED.

But why stop there? Let’s see what the Internet has to say on the matter…

Digging around though public sources, I came across a folk etymology suggesting that some believe scam to be a shortened form of “scandalous misdeeds.” That’s cute, but there’s absolutely no evidence to support it. The origin for that might (and I stress might) be India, where the word apparently (and I stress apparently) was unknown until recently. To be clear on this: absolutely no evidence.

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that it might be a shortened form of “scamp,” which they note has meant “rascal” in British slang since at least the first decade of the 19th century. Again, that’s a nice conjecture, but there’s apparently no evidence to back it up. This source is one you should be aware of if word origins interest you, by the way. As the site author, Douglas Harper, notes, ‘etymonline’ is about origins, not definitions. It’s very well sourced, with useful references.

Going in a different direction (further away from reliable sources), I came across a well-intentioned but unsupported blog post tracing the origin of “scam” back in time and geography through scamp into Old Norse skammr, and from there into Proto Germanic Latin, and even Proto Indo European, finally arriving at a tenuous origin date of approximately 60,000 years BP. That’s clever, and I’ll even leave the door open and say that there’s a glimmer of a possibility that it’s true. But as Sherlock Holmes is credited with saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For this origin tale, there really isn’t any believable evidence presented, extraordinary or ordinary.

One surprising thing is that I’ve found no suggestion that scam was somehow derived from scheme. At the very least this has a nice ring to it as a folk etymology (and scheme used in this way – as a plan or design – dates to at least 1704). There’s no documentation to support that theory, however.

I tried a little poking in the Google Books database to see if I could shake anything else loose (that’s a wonderful tool, which I’ll be dedicating a full post to at some point). One thing that quickly became clear is that the effort to use CAPTCHA to clarify the scanned text of old books has introduced a lot of human error into online text databases: many of the works my searches turned up containing “scam” were about coal mining, and it was obvious that the word should have actually been “seam” in most places. (Let’s be clear: I think Luis von Ahn is brilliant, but CAPTCHA isn’t perfect.) In the rest, the characters are used to abbreviate longer words (such as scammonium, a natural gum resin).

I also stumbled into one reference to someone’s mother’s profession: “Mis mother was a scam-stress and his father a coachman.” Clearly OCR errors: “Mis” should be “his” and “scam-stress” should be “seamstress.”

One search kicked back a result telling me that the word (scam) appears in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. However, follow-up text searches of two different online editions (1876 and 1903) could find no use of “scam” (and only one use of “scamper“) across 328 pages.

Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (1907, p. 848) notes scamble as a word, but gives it a definition of ‘to scramble, to sprawl, to mangle, to squander’ and notes a few other uses, none related to the modern scam. It suggests the word is probably related to shamble, but notes ‘etymology dubious.’ Indeed.

The English Dialect Dictionary (1904, p.238) might provide the only promising reference that predates OED’s. They show scam (also skam) as denoting impurities in rocks and minerals; in adjective form it meant stained, blotched, or with patchy marks (a scammy sheep or dog, for example, had hair with patches missing). It could also mean a stain. In an additional definition, scam (or scamb)  meant a flaw or crack; or an injury. These definitions all came from regional dialects (used in Cornwall, Northumberland, the Sheltand and Orkney islands, etc.). Could they have migrated into mainstream English, without leaving written traces? Possibly; stranger things have happened. Could they have somehow crossed the Atlantic and circulated for half a century unnoticed, leading modern dictionaries to consider scam a word of primarily American origin? That seems less likely, but anything’s possible.

Whatever the ultimate origin, I like the word scam – the sound and feel of it, not the act. It’s one of those rare words that seems to contain its meaning within the sound of the word itself – it’s short and clear, and the sound is just unpleasant enough to put you on your guard; there’s a whiff of something suspicious to it.

This week, I’m simply grateful that I noticed the scam before it was too late. This post probably won’t do anything to help you avoid scams, but if you fall victim to one it might console you just a little bit: those scams, like the word that describes them, have uncertain sources and probably owe their origins to modern American culture.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for nearly 15 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education. He has taught writing at the university level for a number of years.
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10 Responses to It’s a scam! (History and origin of the word ‘scam.’)

  1. I didn’t read every word of this post, but skimmed it for the title of my newest favorite book. I did not see it. So, I would like to point you to Daniel Cassidy’s “How The Irish Invented Slang.” In this volume you will find his theory on the origin of the word scam. From the Irish (of course): ’s cam [é] (pron. s’cam æ): (it is) a trick, (it is) a deception [< ’s contraction is, (pron. iss) + cam “crookedness, a deceit, a trick”]. Used by the Irish-American "criminal" element and brought into mainstream use in the early 1960s after a Time Magazine article on carnival (carny) workers was published. Glad to know you weren't suckered (another American slang word from the Irish), and happy reading!

    • Thanks, Donna.
      I haven’t looked at Cassidy’s book yet (there’s no copy in my library system). I’ll make more of an effort, on your recommendation. Maybe next time I do a book order, I’ll pick up a used copy.
      It’s had mixed reviews – with many coming down hard on it for sloppy research (…something I don’t worry much about on this blog, since I don’t claim a high scholarly standard).
      I’ve only seen the Cassidy book in snippets, but I’ve been surprised at how – um, shall we say “creative?” – some of his etymologies are. Which isn’t to dismiss them: some of the etymologies in the OED (and every other dictionary) are a stretch, too. But a common complaint has been that he sometimes ignores solidly documented etymologies in favor of speculative Irish origins.
      Still, it should be a fun read when I get around to it.
      Thanks again!
      - Chris

  2. Yes, some of the stuff is a bit far-fetched, but quite a lot of it makes sense. I’m aware of the negative reviews due to the lack of scholarship (and messy editing, to put my own two cents in). It just seems to me that for all the influence the Irish had in the building of America, nothing of the language has been recognized in the “standard” English dictionaries. Cassidy’s argument for the inclusion of Irish words into other languages (not just English) due to their frequent emigrations beginning in the 16th-century is a valid one, I believe. And, further research into the word “cam” (I was thinking of camshaft, which produces an irregular or “crooked” motion) has resulted in this (from etymonline dot com): “1777, from Du. cam ‘cog of a wheel,’ originally ‘comb;’ cognate of English comb (q.v.). This might have combined with English camber ‘having a slight arch;’ or the whole thing could be from camber [1610s, nautical term, from O.Fr. cambre, chambre 'bent,' from L. camurum (nom. camur) 'crooked, arched'].” Many Irish words have come from Latin, thanks to the Roman Catholic missionaries. Just such a word could have been used when building their churches and monasteries. It wouldn’t take much to stretch a word meaning “crooked” into one also meaning “deceitful.” This is the kind of thing that is left out of Cassidy’s book, and it is just speculation on my part (not being a linguist, either), but it certainly sounds plausible. Maybe there is someone out there working to corroborate and refine this theory. I certainly hope so!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my small remark.

  3. An erudite friend told me that “scam’ comes from the French word, “escamoter”, which means to hide something, or make it disappear, or cheat. “Escamoteur” is a term used for a charlatan or swindler. “L’Escamoteur” is the name usually given to a famous oil painting of a street magician and the onlookers and his accomplice (nonchalantly picking someone’s pocket), by the renowned 13th century Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch.
    On 2012/09/15, I had the rare opportunity of seeing this painting – due to its extreme worth and the cost of security, it is kept in a vault in the city hall of St. Germain-en-Laye, a Paris suburb, and is put on public display only two days a year, during “Les journees du patrimoine” (Heritage Days).
    I, as a magician for over 81 years, have wished for decades to see the original of this painting, which is probably the most famous of all to magicians who have studied their profession.
    Gordon Precious,
    2012/10/11.

    • thebettereditor says:

      Gordon – This would be such a great etymology, if it could be proven. I wound up doing too much research to squeeze into a comment, so it will be the next post on the blog (appearing tomorrow). Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Pingback: Is the origin of “scam” a scam itself? | thebettereditor

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  6. Dave says:

    There is also the spanish verb “escamotear”, which means to swindle or rob as well as several other connotations. I’m no etymologist, but it’s easy to imagine how in a multinational setting an english speaking person might, in the midst of a dispute, extract ‘scam’ from one of the conjugated forms of either the french verb or the spanish one. ???

  7. Craig Tavani says:

    Is “scam” possibly related to the Greek σκῶμμα, “joke”?
    (cf. the Italian scaramuccia “joker”)
    In his Nicomachean Ethics (iv, viii) Aristotle uses “skomma” in the sense of joke or witticism
    with no referral to any element of double meaning.

    Consider as well the Cornish noun “Skomm” (genitive singular skammar, plural skammir), meaning “shame, dishonor”? [see http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/skomm ]

    Another possibility may be scomm
    [Latin scomma, from Greek skomma, a scoff, a gibe, a taunt, from skopto, to mock, to jeer.]
    1. A flout; a jeer. “The scomms of the orator.” Fotherby.
    2. A buffoon. “The scomms or buffoons or quality.” Sir R. L’Estrange.
    [The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language: A Complete Encyclopedic Lexicon, Literary, Scientific, and Technological, Volume 3 By John Ogilvie]

    All this comes from notes of mine I made while doing research on the skomorokhs, medieval East Slavic actors, who sang, danced, played musical instruments, and composed scores for performances. Please don’t ask me for anything more than this because this part of the research was only peripheral to my main project of developing a theology of laughter.

    • That’s awesome material, Craig, none of which I’ve seen before (…my own investigations are by no means authoritative).
      The case can probably be made for any of them. But the real trick is finding evidence that any of them transferred into English with the familiar usage. Or that they jumped here, and then evolved.
      Or, as has been the problem with some theories, proving that they were actually used by actual people, and not just suggested by creative etymology.
      Thanks again. Great stuff here!

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