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.