skin game (fraud or swindle)

Discuss word origins and meanings.

skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by JANE DOErell » Wed Jul 30, 2008 7:07 pm

Dictionaries such as MW and AHD give definition for "skin game" as:
NOUN: Slang 1. A fraudulent gambling game. 2. A swindle.

MW gives us a date in the 19th century but neither explains why a "skin game" means a swindle. I was watching a Hitchcock movie titled "Skin Game" and the plot was about a series of swindles. The game part seems obvious enough but why "skin"?
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by zmjezhd » Wed Jul 30, 2008 7:32 pm

The citation in the OED1 is from New York by Gaslight: A Work Descriptive of the Great American Metropolis by James Dabney McCabe, 1882. It suggests that a skin game is a rigged game of chance; it also cites skin faro from the same book. The idea was a game intended to fleece or skin the sucker. The Hitchcock movie is based on John Galsworthy's play of the same name from the '20s.

[Addendum: I found the book online under a different title (perhaps an earlier edition). Here's the passage on skin faro.
Next to the first-class houses come the Second-Class Houses, or "Hells,"
as they are called in the city. These lie principally along Broadway and
the side streets leading from it, and in the Bowery. They are numerous,
and are the most frequented by strangers. They are neither as elegantly
furnished, nor as exclusive as to their guests, as the first-class
houses. Any one may visit them, and they keep a regular force of
runners, or "ropers in," for the purpose of enticing strangers within
their walls. They are located over stores, as a general rule, and the
Broadway establishments usually have a number of flashily-dressed,
vulgar-looking men about their doors in the day time, who are
insufferably rude to ladies passing by.

Faro is the usual game played at these houses, but it is a very different
game from that which goes on under the supervision of John Chamberlain.
In gambler's parlance, it is called a "skin game." In plain English it
means that the bank sets out to win the player's money by deliberate and
premeditated fraud. In first-class houses a visitor is never urged to
play. Here every guest must stake his money at the risk of encountering
personal violence from the proprietor or his associates. The dealer is
well skilled in manipulating the cards so as to make them win for the
bank always, and every effort is made to render the victim hazy with
liquor, so that he shall not be able to keep a clear record in his mind
of the progress of the game. A common trick is to use sanded cards, or
cards with their surfaces roughened, so that two, by being handled in a
certain way, will adhere and fall as one card. Again, the dealer will so
arrange his cards as to be sure of the exact order in which they will
come out. He can thus pull out one card, or two at a time, as the
"necessities of the bank" may require. Frequently no tally is kept of
the game, and the player is unable to tell how many turns have been
made--whether the full number or less. Even if the fraud is discovered,
the visitor will find it a serious matter to attempt to expose it. The
majority of the persons present are in the pay of the bank, and all are
operating with but one object--to get possession of the money of
visitors. The slightest effort at resistance will ensure an assault, and
the guest is either beaten and thrown into the street, or he is robbed
and murdered, and his body thrown into the river. There are always men
hanging around these places who are on the watch for an opportunity to
commit a robbery. The most notorious burglars and criminals of the city
visit these hells. They keep a close watch over visitors who stay until
the small hours of the morning, especially upon those who are under the
influence of liquor. They follow them down into the dark and silent
streets, and, at a favorable moment, spring upon them, knock them
senseless and rob them. If necessary to ensure their own safety, they do
not hesitate to murder their victims.



link
]
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Aug 03, 2008 8:06 am

.. I thought that this topic had been covered in the not too distant past but I wasn’t able to find anything .. so what did I find at home ?? .. GA Wilkes in his Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms quotes from an earlier source
skinner A betting coup [f English thieves’ slang –see 1812 quote]: skin to strip a man of all his money at play, is termed skinning him.
Source: from A Vocabulary of the Flash Language. (1812) in The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, ed. Noel McLachlan, London 1964.

John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, 2003 skin (1819) Often implying depriving someone of all their money by unfair methods; from the notion of removing the skin.
.. also quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Slang under the general heading of Deception, cheating, fraud is ..
skin game (1868) US; from skin to swindle + game.
.. there is another interesting use of this term quoted in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable ..
Skinners A predatory band in the American Revolutionary War, which roamed over Westchester County, New York, robbing and fleecing those who refused to take the oath of fidelity to the Republic.
.. as much as the allusion is to a person being skinned there is always, in my mind, the possibility that the skinning could refer to the act of removing someones purse as skin was a criminal slang term for a purse or wallet from as early as 1790 ..

WoZ in Aus 03/08/08
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by PhilHunt » Sun Aug 03, 2008 10:01 am

It may have an earlier origin from Roman Latin.
You may have heard of the 'Skin Trade' in connection with prostitutes. This comes directly from Latin.
Scortor, scortārī meant prostitute coming from scorteus meaning leather or hide. The act of skinning the client was synonymous with robbing the client of their money.
Prostitutes were often referred to in a predatory way, such as lupa (she wolf). This seems a more likely origin to me.
Last edited by PhilHunt on Thu Aug 07, 2008 11:07 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by zmjezhd » Sun Aug 03, 2008 5:31 pm

I wonder how old the term skin trade for prostitution is. Most of the 19th and 18th century examples I could find on Google Books were discussing peltry. The brick and mortar OED1 only has this meaning. I could not find the word in Partridge. There's definitely something about skin and prostitution in Latin scortum (NB a neuter noun) means both 'skin' and 'male or female prostitute' (cf. Greek pornos). Catullus uses the verb glubo 'to husk, peel, skin' in the context of whores servicing the grandsons of Remus in the back alleys of Rome; it is usually taken to mean the peeling back of the foreskin. The common verbs for 'to flay, skin' is deglubo and spolio (cf. spolium 'skin, hide, pelt; spoils, booty', related to pellis 'hide'). Scortum is related to Latin cortex 'husk', scrotum and English shear, all of which go back to a PIE root sker- 'to cut' (link). The Latin word for brothel, lupanar, may be not related to Latin lupus 'wolf' (lupa 'she-wolf') but rather to lutum 'clay, mud'. Cf. another word for brothel lustrum 'bog, morrass; brothel' and lustrum 'quinquennial purification' < lustro 'to purify'. The third term, fornix (whence English fornicator), meant originally 'arch, vault, arcade'.

[Corrected errors.]
Last edited by zmjezhd on Mon Aug 04, 2008 1:06 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Aug 04, 2008 1:00 am

The third term, fornax (whence English fornicator), meant originally arch.
Jim,

Did you mean 'arch' as in 'curved shape'; 'naughtily or annoyingly playful'; or 'being expert in skulduggery'?
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by zmjezhd » Mon Aug 04, 2008 1:12 am

Did you mean 'arch' as in 'curved shape'; 'naughtily or annoyingly playful'; or 'being expert in skulduggery'?

Erik. Sorry about that. I meant the architectural structure. I also typed fornax 'oven' rather than fornix 'arch; brothel'. I have corrected both the error and the omissions in my posting above. Fornix and fornax are probably related to one another, as well as to English burn and Greek thermosn 'warm, hot' < PIE *gwher- 'to be warm' (link).
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Aug 04, 2008 8:06 am

Jim, Thanks for that Gutenberg link. I started on it and had a hard time stopping. The book is fascinating reading, covering a wide range of interesting topics (in its 850 pages) from newsboys, to criminals, to drunkedness, to education, to the wharves, . . . to the skin game. And the woodcuts are beautiful. I think the book would be interesting for anyone, but I found it particularly so having grown up in New York City. I finally decided that if the price was within reason, I might try to get a hard copy, but figured it was probably an expensive collector’s item. I was surprised to find that it was available on Amazon for as low as $4, and I ordered a copy. The original book was titled Lights and Shadows of New York Life; or, the Sights and Sensations of The Great City. A Work Descriptive of the City of New York in all its various phases by James D. McCabe and was first published in 1872. A 1970 reprint accounts for the reasonable price.

The original SKIN GAME is well-described in your posting and Wiz did a good job of presenting and nailing down the basic facts. Here I’ll just add some additional information (and repeat some) garnered in my dictionary wanderings.

The SKIN in SKIN GAME derives from the verb SKIN and the earliest indication of its use that I could find was in the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY:

SKINNING verbal noun Obsolete rare: Fleecing, plundering. [[where the OED defines the verb fleece: To strip (a person, city, country, etc.) of money, property, etc., as a sheep is stripped of its fleece; to make (any one) pay to the uttermost; to exact money from, or make exacting charges upon; to plunder, rob heartlessly; to victimize]]
<1686 “Places for the SKINNING of strangers, who are reputed to be rich.”—translation of Chardin’s Travels in Persia 1673-1677, page 347> [[It would seem that by providing the 1686 date the OED is implying that this was the year of the translation. But 1686 is the year of the original French version and it seems unlikely that the translation would appear in the same year. The earliest translation that I could find was from 1720]]

However, most sources I checked do not refer to this earlier use of SKIN (was it reinvented or did it just reemerge in print a century later?) and simply say that the SKIN in SKIN GAME refers to the verb SKIN (in the appropriate sense), which first appeared in print in 1812 (see Wiz above and quote below) in a glossary of prison slang written by a former Australian convict (see 1812 quote) and which next appeared in 1819 in a U.S. newspaper (see quote below).

SKIN verb slang:

a) [1812 and still in use]: To clean out (a person) at play [[gaming]]. [[Seems to me the simplest and most likely derivation for this slang meaning is that it is a figurative extension of the earlier Standard English meaning “To strip or pull off (a skin, etc.),” but where here a person is being ‘stripped’ of their money or fleeced]]
<1812 “s.v., To strip a man of all his money at play, is termed SKINNING him.”—A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language by James Hardy Vaux (also in his 1819 Memoirs) [[Australia]]

<1864 “The gamblers did their best to give us fits; but in less than half an hour, sir, the little squaw she SKINNED the crowd.”—Daily Telegraph [[London or Australia ??]], 19 October>

<1889 “In less than two or three hours [to] be SKINNED out of every cent.”—Fifty Years on the Trail by H. O’Reilly, page 343> [[U.S. West]]
b) [1819 and still in use]: To strip or deprive (of clothing, money, property) unfairly or fraudulently; to fleece by exactions or swindling; fleece, swindle, victimize; hence the noun skinning a loss inflicted by cheating. [[probably a figurative extension of Standard English – see (a) above]]
<1819 “They will not be able to SKIN the people as deep as they did during their former reign.”—Thomas’ Massachusetts Spy or Worcester Gazette, 24 March, page 3/1>

<1839 “I wish I may be blown into a gin shop if I warnt SKINNED clean O! The young woman had . . . picked my pockets of every cent.”—The Adventures of Harry Franco by C. F. Briggs, II. vi. page 76>

<1851 “Perhaps he gets ‘SKINNED’ (stripped of his clothes and money from being hocussed, or tempted to helpless drunkenness).”—London Labour and the London Poor by H. Mayhew, II. page71>

<1892 “Suppose the Emigration Trusts SKIN the emigrants until they stop emigration.”—The Spectator, 12 March, page 364/2>

<1898 “Some new device is invented for enmeshing and SKINNING the investor.”—Eclectic Magazine, LXVII. page 607>

<1930 “Unfortunately. Well, There it is. The only thing to do seems to be to get back to the course and SKIN a bookie or two.”—Very Good, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, page 203>

<1951 “As this was being written, a gypsy fortune-teller was under indictment charged with using such props as torn diapers, a red candle and a department store ladies’ room, to SKIN three Washington housewives of $450.”—Washington Confidential by Lait and Mortimer, page 279>

<1953 “To anyone he could buttonhole, he bragged about how he had ‘stung’ this person or ‘SKINNED’ that one.”—Bad Boy by Jim Thompson, page 308>
But, I do agree with Wiz when he said above:
< “.. as much as the allusion is to a person being skinned there is always, in my mind, the possibility that the skinning could refer to the act of removing someones purse as skin was a criminal slang term for a purse or wallet from as early as 1790 ..”>

Since in both the earlier (on or prior to) 1790 quote and according to Vaux’s own 1812 Flash Dictionary, SKIN also means purse, it is not unreasonable to think that SKIN could have meant relieve one of one’s purse:
<a1790 “SKIN, a purse.”—A New Dictionary of All the Cant and Flash Languages (1795) by H. T. Potter, page 53>

<1812 SKIN, a purse, a money bag.”—A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language by James Hardy Vaux (also in his 1819 Memoirs)>
SKIN GAME noun [1868 and still in use]: A card game or any other game or scheme in which a person has absolutely no chance to win; a rigged gambling game; a swindle a confidence game, scam [[based on the slang verb skin (see above). According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “The allusion is presumably to ‘skin’ meaning to fleece or strip someone of their money by sharp practice or fraud.”]]
<1868 “The square game . . . is played only by gentlemen, and in first-class houses; . . . the SKIN GAME . . . is played in all the dens and chambers, and in the thousand low hells of New York.”—Sunshine & Shadow in New York by M. H. Smith, page 405>

<1872 “In gambler’s parlance, it is called a ‘SKIN GAME.’ In plain English it means that the bank sets out to win the player’s money by deliberate and premeditated fraud.”— Shadows of New York Life; or, the Sights and Sensations of The Great City by James D. McCabe, page 724> [[from above posting]]

<1882 “The ‘SKIN GAME’ is used, with the majority of the visitors, for the proprietor is determined from the outset to fleece them without mercy.”—New York by Sunlight and Gaslight by McCabe, xxxix, page 545> [[Note: This quote does not seem to appear in the above 1872 Shadows of New York Life]]

<1897 SKIN GAMES, those in which a player cannot possibly win.”— Foster's Complete Hoyle by R. F. Foster, page 623>

<1904 “We built the bridges finally, . . . for we weren't really working a SKIN GAME.”—The Promoters: A Novel Without a Woman by W. H. Smith, page 98>

<1920 “She wants to sell, an' she'll get her price, whatever it is. Hillcrist. (With deep anger) If that isn't a SKIN GAME . . .I don't know what is.”—SKIN GAME by John Galsworthy, I. page 19>

<1938 “The old baseball SKIN GAME of trying to trade ‘nothing for something’ was resumed today among the National League magnates and managers here for their annual schedule meeting.”—Fresno Bee Republican (California), page 11>

<1958 “The . . . ironies of German political life: the strange mixture of elements . . . that mingle in the Bonn SKIN GAME.”—The Economist, 1 February, page 398/2>

<1972 “I was headed toward a singing career again and could soon kiss the SKIN GAME a fond farewell, Lord willing.”—The Flim-Flam Man and the Apprentice Grifter by Guy Owen, page 144>

<1973 “As a very small [antiques] dealer, I was no opposition . . . His business is rather a SKIN GAME.”—Bardel’s Murder by E. McGirr, i. page 10>
(Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of American Regional English, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Ayto's Oxford Dictionary of Slang, and archived sources)
__________________

Ken – August 3, 2008
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Wizard of Oz » Fri Aug 08, 2008 10:32 pm

.. I feel for a sense of completeness it is necessary to cover that other common use of the term skins game and I refer to the big money skins games of golf .. whether you are playing for a dollar a hole with the local hackers in the Wednesday chook run game or whether you are holding your breath as some big name puts for a million smackaroonies .. the type of golf gambling game known as a skins game is well established .. so if you want to find the middle of the green I suggest you have a look in this hole to get the heads-up from the golfing geeks .. I didn't think it was worth cutting and pasting and claiming it as my research .. *grin* ..

.. although having read what they propose I can still see a connection to the idea of the skin = purse meaning .. it is common in sport for the prizemoney to be called the purse .. but I do feel that using English criminal slang for a game in 1950s America is drawing a longbow .. or Bob is that long bow ?? ..

WoZ on the fairway

09/08/08
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Bobinwales » Sat Aug 09, 2008 7:38 pm

Longbow without a doubt, this description of the Battle of Falkirk will tell you that the English would never have done it without the Welsh longbow.
the new English tactic of using the Welsh longbow in mass units to shower deadly arrows at great range at the enemy finally took its toll on the Scots
And the English bowmen at Agincourt? Not on your Nelly. It was us Welsh again.
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Aug 10, 2008 1:14 am

.. hey watch it Bob .. that's your lot firing arrows at my lot .. but we can take it .. *lifts new kilt and bares all* ...

WoZmacwoz
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Phil White » Sun Aug 10, 2008 1:21 am

There's barefaced cheek for you.
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Aug 10, 2008 6:50 pm

Barefaced cheek would only have offered targets!

Longshanks forced us into it WoZ
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by GtrBob » Sun Nov 03, 2013 7:08 am

I first heard the phrase 'Skin Game' on Peg Leg Howell's blues of the same name, widely available now on cd, on youtube and spotify from 1927, where he tells of a fixed card game where he has to pawn his gun. He uses the word 'nigger' in the asides betweeen, uncommon for recorded rural blues. There are many other blues which use the phrase in the same context, lamenting being conned, or as people say 'fleeced'. The Hitchcock film is well worth a watch, class war.
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Re: skin game (fraud or swindle)

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Nov 03, 2013 10:01 am

.. hi Bob .. is that short for Greater Bob .. or Bob the greater ?? .. Bob in Wales is a Blues man too ..

WoZ on harmonica
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