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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