Why is an economy or system “rigged”?

While it’s increasingly unlikely that he will win his party’s nomination this summer, Senator Bernie Sanders promises to take his fiery message all the way to the Democratic convention. “The economy is rigged,” he protests at his packed and impassioned rallies. “The system is rigged,” he cries in political interviews. But why is rigged  – “manipulated or fixed in an illegal or improper manner” – rigged?

“I know their tricks well.” A 19th-century lithograph of the thimblerig by John Doyle. Image courtesy of www.albion-prints.com.


We might reasonably suppose rigged has nautical roots. A ship, after all, is rigged with ropes, knots, masts, and sails. The intricate and complicated apparatus of rigging seems like a natural metaphor for other phenomena, like elections or prices, that have been artfully fixed.

As tempting as the connection may be, Bernie’s rigged is actually first found in financial contexts. (With Scandinavian roots, nautical rigging is unrelated.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites several key usages in an 1826 edition of The Times: “This was one of the very best ‘rigged’ Companies that ever were introduced into the share-market.” A rigged stock, the dictionary explains, was a publicly listed one whose value was increased or decreased through illegal, improper, or contrived methods. The news article provides additional examples that help illustrate the development of rigged. Note the verb and noun forms: “Very few shares were paid upon in the Company, as it was intended to ‘rig’ them in the market. The ‘rig’ failed.”

Auctions were also rigged. As the OED records, a rig was “a fraudulent auction,” specifically one of worthless goods at which genuine bidding is encouraged by spurious bids made by associates of the auctioneer.” For this rig, the OED first cites the English magazine Atheneum in 1825: “The goods, where there is a rig, whether furniture or otherwise, are generally either damaged, or got up on purpose, in a shabby but showy way.” This rig is telling, as it highlights the trickery and deceit involved in the term. For it is precisely this sense of “trickery” and “deceit” that hatched rigged.

Tricks are for kings

Originally, a rig was a “scheme,” “swindle,” “trick,” or “prank.” The OED records rig as a colloquialism dated as early as 1640, as a verb about a century later. It’s featured in thimblerig, a 19th-century version of the shell game or three-card Monte that used three thimbles and a pea for its con.

The ultimate origin of this rig, however, eludes us. The OED does suggest it may be related to reak, English dialect for “a prank” or “playful trick” usually found in the phrase to play reaks and attested in the 16th century. And to play reaks might be a variation of to play rex: “to behave like a lord or master.” (Rex is “king” in Latin.) To play tricks, then, is a kind of power move.

An alternative theory for reak is freak, which referred to various “caprices” well before it was extended to its current sense of “abnormality.” (The etymological nature of freak is unknown.) Walter Skeat, meanwhile, supposed rig was connected to rickets and wriggle.

If the delegate math is any measure, Bernie Sanders might not find validation for his campaign against rigged systems in the Democratic nomination. But, aside from the groundswell of support his campaign has inspired in many young and independent voters, the etymology of rigged, with its roots in financial fraud and tyrannical tricks, is some consolation.

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Breaking open the “piggy bank”

The Panama Papers is a big leak pointing to some big names involved in some big money. Fortunately, at least for a little head like mine, some smart folks on the internet have been helping me understand this big news in some simpler terms: the piggy bank.

I’m not going to dive into the shell companies, tax evasion, or corruption associated with the secret offshore industry the Panama Papers is exposing, because, well, I got no further than piggy bank, thanks to the helpful explainers.

Where does this term piggy bank come from? I guess I’ll have to break it open and see what sort of etymological money is inside.

This little piggy went to the market, I guess you could say. Image from www.freeimages.com/photo/piggy-bank-1428097.

“Piggy bank”: a lexical ledger 

A casual web search for the origins of piggy bank will yield various articles repeating a claim that piggy banks were originally made from pygg, a kind of “orange clay.” Through subsequent spelling and vowel changes in Middle English, this pygg evolved into the piggy associated with these “money boxes” today.

Hogwash. Mostly.

As far as the written record of piggy bank goes, here’s what we know. The earliest record of piggy bank is actually the American English pig bank, cited in the Jersey Journal in 1898. Etymologist Barry Popik points us to a particularly illustrative citation in a 1900 issue of The Oregonian: “The latest novelty — The Pig Bank. You have to kill the pig to get the money — 25c each.”

This early example indeed supports the classic concept of the piggy banks: They have to be broken apart to get the money slipped into its one-way slot. Aversion to, or the inconvenience of, this requisite destruction, so it goes, encouraged savings, as well as perhaps deterred theft.

Now, piggy bank as such is evidenced by 1913 in The Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette, according to the OED: “She could see everything quite plainly now; her little room with the pink roses climbing up the wall, her box of toys, — “Teddy was up-side-down, poor Teddy,” — her desk with the piggy bank on top of it.”

The OED does document another sort of pig bank in the mid 19th century, though this one appears to be unrelated. This pig bank refers to a small bank supplied with money by a larger one. (Perhaps the operant metaphor is that the small bank is fattened up like a pig?)

Rolling in the mud?

As far as the record is concerned, the term piggy bank is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the savings device is much older. Archaeologists have discovered money boxes used in ancient Rome, in medieval China, and even in 14th-century Indonesia, whose money boxes even took the form of pigs.

But why should these coin containers be associated with pigs in the first place?

We don’t have evidence of the kind of orange pygg many internet articles cite, but we do have record of pig referring to various clay vessels. In Scottish and northern dialects of English, a pig has named an earthenware crockery (e.g., pitchers, jars) since the 15th century. And piggy as an adjective and noun for “earthenware” have been found in Scots in the 20th century.

For the origin of this pig, the OED ultimately admits its ignorance, but it does make some interesting suggestions. Perhaps it is related to piggin, a “wooden pail,” though earthen or metallic in some regions. Or perhaps it is connected to prig, a “small metal pitcher.”

The OED also cites an analog in the Scottish pirlie pig, which the dictionary attests by 1799. Here, the pirlie refers to “poking” a coin out of the pig, a kind of “clay pot.”

And, as a Middle English dictionary suggests, the earliest known reference to this pig as a “pygg of wine,” was so named because the container was made from pig skin. (Despite appearances, this pygg is not the “orange clay” your cursory Google queries will yield.)

Etymology must often heed Occam’s razor. Piggy might just be a transferred sense of pig, as in, yes, the animal. Smallish, round vessels made from flesh-colored clay? Sure, they sort of look like little oinkers. (As for the actual etymology of pig, see my piece over at Oxford Dictionaries on the curiously obscure origins of some common animal names.)

Swine lines   

So, let’s size things up: We have evidence of earthenware pigs in Middle English by the 1450s, Scottish pirlie pigs by the 1800s and piggies by 1950s, and American English pig bank and piggy bank by the 1900s. Record-wise, this is a pigsty.

As Michael Quinion suggest in his thoughtful discussion, we might well turn our attention away from lexical pigs to cultural ones for the origins of piggy bank. We find money boxes in various forms throughout early Europe, including in the form of pigs. Due to the food they provide and the farrow they birth, pigs became symbols of wealth, fertility, and luck, particularly in Germanic cultures. Immigrants, apparently, must have brought Sparschwein (a “saving pig”), for instance, to United States, where speakers applied a more literal label to this hog hoarder.

For as much as piggy banks may help someone like me understand the situation, the Panama Papers is evoking a different kind of pig symbolism: the greedy, capitalist kind.

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How did “lame duck” take flight?

Technically, President Barack Obama is not a “lame duck” until after the election in November. But with a gridlocked Congress, an unprecedented presidential campaign, and a sudden Supreme Court vacancy, pundits, the press, and politicos have been already quacking the fowl phrase a few months into the president’s final year.

There is even an egregiously false “lame duck” clause making the rounds online; citing Article III Section IV of the Constitution, which does not exist, it claims “the President may not nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court if the vacancy shall occur in the year leading up to an election, when the candidate be a ‘lame duck.'” The phrase lame duck did exist when the constitution was drafted, as we’ll see, but many decades passed before we started using in this way.

So, how did the expression lame duck take flight?

Lame duck

It wasn’t politics that first gave wing to the expression lame duck. It was stock brokering – or rather, bad stock brokering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes lame duck back to 18th-century broker slang for a “defaulter” in the (now) London Stock Exchange. Brokers who cannot pay off their losses, so it goes, are like ducks that can’t walk. Helping to further explain the metaphor, the dictionary cites David Garrick in a prologue to a comedy by Samuel Foote: “Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks!” The passage goes on to describe all sorts of colorful terms the papers were apparently using for gamesome folk: “The gaming fools are doves, the knaves are rooks, / Change-Alley bankrupters waddle out lame ducks! But, Ladies, blame not your gaming spouses, / For you, as well as they, have pidgeon-houses!”

This is not the earliest evidence the OED gives for lame duck, though. It first cites a letter written by English scholar and politician Horace Walpole: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck, are?” Indeed, the duck is not the only animal in the stock market’s menagerie; stockjobbers have been referring to bears and bulls since the early 1700s. In his letter, Walpole expresses dismay for moneyed interests in conflicts with the Spanish at the time. He goes on to answer his question: “Nay, nor I either; I am only certain they are neither animals nor fowl, but are extremely interested in the new subscription. I don’t believe I apply it right here; but I feel as if I should be a lame duck if the Spaniards take the vessel that has my Altar on board.” (Altar? Walpole famously collected art and historical artifacts, if I reckon correctly. Subscription I assume refers to some sort of financial investment opportunity.)

For all of lame duck’s disability, it definitely winged its way across the pond. The OED finds it in US political contexts as early as a January 1863 edition of the Congressional Globe, deriding the United States Court of Claims: “In no event…could it be greatly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of ‘lame ducks’ or broken down politics.” Lame duck easily jumps from maimed finances to crippled politics.

By the early 1900s, we see lame duck flocking to its current usage, the session after an election before a new office-holder takes their seat. It was used especially of Congress at first. In 1910, the New York Evening Post noted that reporters chattered of the “‘Lame Duck Alley’ …a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.” Ducks, for the good of your name, you should really start avoiding alleyways.

Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution is also known as the Lame Duck Amendment: It ended a president and vice president’s term on January 20 and Congress on January 3, moved up from March 4. This prevents lame ducks from being lamer ducks, shall we say. Also, office-holders just don’t need as much time to get ready for their service as they did centuries back, I imagine.

A picture from the National Archives of the Joint Resolution ratified as the 20th Amendment. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Lame duck has been used of broken-down ships, commercial enterprises, and persons, more generally. The OED also notes a related expression predating its first citation of lame duck: “to come by the lame post (of news),” to be “behind the times” in the 17th century.

Today, I hear lame duck usually characterizing the powerlessness of a president in a final term. But, in an age when being a politician can be like being a professional fundraiser, a lame duck can reassemble that other national bird: the eagle, for a lame-duck president’s wings aren’t clipped by running for re-election. That is, if your opponents aren’t out hunting.

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Why do we “endorse” candidates?

Sarah Palin made news this week with her endorsement of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. Her endorsement raised a number of questions, we could say. Not the least of which, most certainly, is the etymological one. Why’s it called endorse?

Did you make it payable to the Mashed Radish? “Endorse.” Doodle by me. 


We endorse candidates because we endorse checks, essentially. Money indeed plays an obscene role in politics, but I’m just talking about the word’s history here.

By the late 1300s, endorse meant “to write on the back of something,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, particularly a financial document like a bill or a check. When we endorse a check, we sign our names on the back of it. It’s an act of verification, of vouching. Hence the metaphorical endorsement, cited by the mid 1800s. In the early 1900s, the word further shifted towards a more general sense of “to declare approval” (OED).

Today, political figures, celebrities, organizations, and newspapers, especially, make endorsements of candidates. I wasn’t able to track down exactly when newspapers started doing so, but The New York Times first endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860:

A Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as “Old Abe,” age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter, is to be our next president. The thing seems pretty sure.

“Back” to its roots

Endorse was originally endosse in Middle English. The word was loaned from the French endosser and, ultimately, from that great lexical lender, Latin. Now, medieval Latin had indorsāre. Much like the early endorse, this verb was used for writing commentary on the back of legal documents – the Microsoft Word “Track Changes” of the day, I suppose. In the 1500s, English shaped endosse into indorse and endorse so the word conformed to its Latin roots. The latter form eventually prevailed.

Latin’s indorsāre bears two parts: in-, here signifying “on,” and dorsum, “back.” Some scholars have attempted to root Latin’s dorsum in an earlier form that fuses de- and versum, “turned away from,” but most don’t back this up.

Though the ultimate origin of dorsum remains unknown, it has its descendants. A dorsal fin is on the back of a dolphin, say. From French’s dos (French fashioned dorsum as dos), a dossier can amass quite a number of documents, whose bulge can resemble a back when so bundled, apparently. And when you dance the do-si-do,  you maneuver “back-to-back,” such is the meaning of French’s dos-à-dos that originated this term – and the delicious Girl Scout cookie, which is something I think we can all endorse.

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