Sure, The Grifters is about shams and swindles, switched identities, and an interesting relationship between a boy and his mother, but it’s also about language. The film, which was released 25 years ago this month, is rife with criminal cant, some of which might be older than you think.
“You talk the lingo,” short con grifter Roy says to Myra, and so do we. Here are 11 swindling slang terms from The Grifters, and the stories behind them.
1. ON THE GRIFT
“You're on the grift,” Lilly says to her son Roy. “I know you are.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the U.S. criminal slang term grift originated in the early 1900s. It may be an alteration of graft, which is from 1865 and refers to obtaining profit in a shady way.
So where does this meaning of graft come from? There are a couple of theories. One is that it’s from the 1850s British slang term graft, meaning “one’s occupation” (which ultimately comes from graft, meaning ditch or moat). Another theory is that it’s related to the word graft that means a twig or off-shoot that lives by sucking the life off another.
2. ON THE SQUARE
The opposite of on the grift is on the square. For example, Roy is pretending to be on the square by working as a salesman.
Square, meaning “old-fashioned,” is from 1940s American jazz slang, and might come from the shape a band conductor’s hands make in a four-beat rhythm. The 18th-century word square-toes has a similar meaning; it refers to what was thought to be old-fashioned square-toed men’s shoes.
The phrase on the square has an even older meaning. Starting from about 1670, according to the OED, on or upon the square meant in a fair or honest manner, without trickery, especially in playing or gaming.
“You’re one to talk,” Roy says to Lilly. “Still running playback money for the mob.”
The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English defines playback as “a scheme by which the odds on a particular horse race are engineered lower by heavy betting on that horse.” However, its reference is the novel The Grifters—so whether playback is a legitimate gambling term or if it was coined by Grifters author Jim Thompson is unclear.
4. THE RACKETS
On the other hand, the rackets—which Lilly tells Roy he was never cut out for—has been in documented use since at least 1819. At that time, the phrase was used in British English to mean a scam, and came into American English with the same meaning around 1869. It was in the 1920s that the rackets was used to refer to organized crime in general.
So how did the word racket come to be associated with lawlessness? One possibility is that it was came from racquet in a gaming sense and the idea of using strategy and sometimes trickery to win.
“You send me $10,000,” says angry boss Bobo to Lilly, “like I'm some mark you can blow off!”
Mark meaning someone targeted for robbery or easily duped is older than you might think. In the late 16th century, the word had gained the meaning among criminals as someone or something targeted for burglary. By the mid-1700s, a mark was someone specifically targeted for a swindle or scam.
In the 1930s, mark also became part of carny cant, and referred to a non-carny, a customer, or a member of the public.
While the film seems to use frammis to mean a unscrupulous scheme (specifically, an insurance frammis involving a towel full of oranges), the word originated around 1940 in comic strips as a generic surname or company name. From a 1944 New Republic article: “[The comic strip ‘Silly Milly’] has its pet vocabulary—all names are Frammis, laughter is Yuk Yuk, and the language of animals is Coo.”
By the mid-1940s, frammis also meant jargon of confusion, and by the late 1940s, it was a word similar to thingy, gizmo, or whatchamacallit.
7. THE TAT
Myra realizes her boyfriend Roy is on the grift when she witnesses him “working the tat” on some sailors.
Tat, meaning loaded or false dice, is quite old—it dates from the 1680s. Tat-monger, a con man who uses such dice, is from around the same time. However, where the word tat comes from is unclear. Tattoo, meaning permanent ink on the skin, didn't come about until around the 1770s. And while a military meaning of tattoo (a beat of a drum or bugle call to end an evening) predates tat by about 40 years, the connection is unclear.
One possible origin is a 1607 meaning of tat, “to touch lightly,” perhaps with the idea of carefully touching the loaded dice.
8. and 9. THE SHORT CON AND THE LONG END
Working the tat is a short con, or a one-time scam that takes the mark for the money they happen to have on hand. Con here is a shortening of confidence trick, in which a dupe hands over valuables as a token of confidence or trust in a con man (or woman, as the case may be).
Opposed to the short con is the long end, also known as the big con, the long con, and the long game. The long end is more complex than the short con and can take months or even years.
“I'm the roper,” Myra tells Roy. “I go out and find them and bring them in.”
According to the OED, this sense of roper originated around 1840 and referred to someone charged with bringing customers into a gambling establishment and later into any scam. This probably came from the earlier meaning of someone who catches an animal with a lasso, especially at a rodeo.
11. INSIDE MAN
Since, as Roy astutely points out, nobody does a long con single-o, Myra needs a partner—an inside man. While the roper brings in the mark, the inside man stays near the “big store,” or sham operation. This 1930s term could also mean a spy posing as an employee within a company.