Is the origin of “scam” a scam itself?

Reader Gordon Precious recently commented on my earlier post about the word “scam.”

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.
[Read his full comment at the bottom of the page here.]

Gordon provided such a great story (and such a fantastic possible addition to the etymology) that I had to go and do some additional research. Before I knew it, I had far more than I could cram into a single comment response so, for everyone’s reading pleasure, today’s post brings the earlier discussion of scam up to date.

As with all great word stories, Gordon’s included, I began with skepticism. “Really?” I thought. “Okay, I’m listening. But you have to prove it.” Usually, I’m disappointed. But when things can be verified, I’m very happy.

I like Gordon’s “escamoteur” theory a lot. Certainly much more than the Irish theory (see the earlier comment thread), especially since Gordon’s theory has an appropriately named painting with a 500-year provenance to give it weight. But is there any solid support in the English lexicon? If so, what is it?

Gordon and his erudite friend are mostly correct with the details (but not entirely). “Escamoteur” is a French noun, meaning “conjurer.” The verb form is “escamoter,” “to conjure away.” Escamoter has some other meanings, primarily “retract” but also, figuratively, “dodge, evade, get round; filch, pinch.” (All the French definitions here are taken from the Langenscheidt Standard French Dictionary.) Those figurative definitions certainly throw some weight in the direction of this theory.

On the other hand…while it’s hard to know for sure how the use of a loan word has evolved in its source language since it was borrowed (or even since the definitions were committed to print — my Langenscheidt is from 1988), at the time this dictionary went to press the “retract” sense seems to have been dominant. In fact, at that time the adjective (and noun) form “escamotable” seems to have primarily meant “disappearing,” not in the strict vanishing sense, but rather in the sense of something that was retractable, or a type of pull-down mechanism: the landing gear of an aircraft, or the folding arm rest in a car or plane. Certainly this modern sense doesn’t really align with the English scam. (And the leap from “conjurer” to “swindler” in French is not supported at all. C’est la vie.)

What about a less modern sense? And what about that wonderful painting Gordon refers to?

The painting is “L’Escamoteur” (in English usually, “The Conjurer“), from about 1475-1505, and is believed by many to be the work of Hieronymus Bosch. [I’ve dipped a little into the scholarship on this, and it seems that a more accurate date is “after 1496,” while many art historians hedge about the Bosch attribution, instead saying things like “from the workshop of Bosch” or “in the style of Bosch.”] You can check out the wiki here (or the French language wiki, which is significantly more informative, here).

While the painting is of “l’escamoteur,” ‘the conjurer’ (or “juggler” in some interpretations), direct your eyes to the man on the far left: his gaze is directed heavenward, but his hands are busy relieving the mark of his purse.

Gordon’s theory suggests that, through whatever route, the word “escamoteur” became associated with the fleecing of the mark, either by the thief or by the thief and juggler in concert, and that the word migrated into English and was shortened to scam (or was shortened, and then migrated). It became associated with a deceptive act, and that’s where it settled into English in the early 1960s.

It’s not the strangest theory I’ve ever heard. It’s not even the craziest theory I’ve seen about the word scam: the Irish origin doesn’t seem plausible, but even that seems credible compared to the Proto Indo European origin yarn. In fact, the “L’escamoteur” theory is downright appealing. If there was hard evidence for it, I’d buy right in.

Sadly, that’s where it comes up short. There’s no textual evidence that the 20th century English word scam derives from the 16th century French “escamoteur.” None at all.

If the French word — as indicated by the painting — has been around for over 500 years, where has it been all this time? Why did it only suddenly — and surreptitiously — jump into English in a shortened form 50 years ago? And why, at that time, did it come through carnies, not (as Gordon’s note suggests) through professional magicians? Maybe it first mutated into “scambler,” a Scottish import known from at least 1533. But how and why did it take that circuitous route into English — and isn’t it more likely that scambler is derived from the Gaelic sgimilear? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.

Could scam have come from “escamoteur?” It’s not entirely out of the question. But, as the barely credible Irish origin story and the completely unbelievable Proto Indo European origin story show, I could easily concoct a believable folk etymology that traces scam to “eskimo” or a similar sound-alike word The problem would still be the same, however: a lack of solid evidence.

I would love to believe the “L’Escamoteur” story. It’s very appealing. But I can’t. There just isn’t evidence for it. Maybe it will turn up, but so far it hasn’t.

Sometimes a mystery, however small, is better when it’s been solved; other times, the mystery is more powerful than the solution (look at how quickly the Higgs boson has already been forgotten). I think the nature of the word scam is actually enhanced because none of us really knows where it came from, or how, or why.

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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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5 Responses to Is the origin of “scam” a scam itself?

  1. Pingback: For your consideration and amusement | thebettereditor

  2. Eric says:

    Your post is interesting. That word had caught my eye too. You seem to be saying that the mystery of its origin should be maintained, and that is doubtless sage advice. At the risk of spoiling the secret, may I point out a couple things?

    The reason that it is so difficult to find old examples of the word “scam” is that it used to be spelled “sham.”

    The basis of the word is the element “sc,” which is also expressed as sh, sch, sac, sag, etc.

    Sc is essentially totemic — it is the emblem of a particular ethny and is used to construct words related to shipping, cutting, escaping and, in this case, deception.

    Scam lies on a small branch of the Sc family, which branch includes skim, skint, skimp, scum, schaum, σκευωρία, etc.

    Just between you and me.

    • Thanks, Eric.
      Personally, I’d be fine if the origin of scam could be nailed down. I can’t say that I’m terribly interested in maintaining the mystery on this one.
      Your idea certainly isn’t the worst I’ve heard…it’s probably one of the better ones, actually. But like most of the others, there isn’t enough solid evidence to support it. Great theory, but we’ll have to see if anyone can uncover some good proof.

  3. Travis Bird says:

    I was curious about this word since I first saw it mentioned back in the days of ‘Abscam’. The explanation of an origin in a Romance word for ‘conjurer’ is reinforced by the existence of the Spanish cognate ‘escamoteador’ which has the figurative meaning ‘swindler’. The prevalence of Spanish in the Americas would make this the most likely source for a word in American English. Perhaps a bilingual person coined it back in the 1960s.

    • My limited knowledge of Spanish puts my ability to do serious research on this beyond my comfort envelope. However, some preliminary looking around leaves this etymology in just as much (or more) doubt as any other. I don’t have the knowledge to dispute the colloquial definition you suggest for “escamoteador” but the formal sources I’m able to review don’t agree — they restrict the use (of the verb, “escamotear”) to magic (sleight of hand and juggling) or physical dodging (avoidance); the noun and adjective follow suit.

      That doesn’t mean it can’t be true, only that (and I sound like a broken record here) the sources don’t support it. Online etymological resources for Spanish (in Spanish or English) are essentially non-existent, and I don’t have printed ones available. One more (equally unsupportable) idea I’ll toss out is that if this word is popular in contemporary Spanish, it’s just as likely that it crossed over from English (or another source) instead of the other way around. Language flows continuously in all directions.

      We’re no closer to nailing this one down, and I suspect we never will be.

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