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shameless pleading






The human touch.

Dear Word Detective:  What does “grifter” mean?  I hear it often but it’s not in any dictionary. — Debbie W.

Um, exactly how often do you hear “grifter”?  I ask only because I almost never hear it, and while that may be because I swore off television last year, I’m worried that hearing the word “grifter” too often bespeaks an unhealthy environment, unless one works for the FBI.  On the other hand, if you worked for the FBI, you’d know what “grifter” means.

A “grifter,” simply put, is a con artist, a swindler, a petty criminal who runs scams, schemes and flim-flams on unsuspecting “marks” (con artist lingo for victims).  Often a grifter exploits human weaknesses and vulnerabilities, especially greed and loneliness, to extract money from the mark, and does it with a routine so convincing that the police frequently have a hard time convincing the mark that he or she has been the victim of a crime.  The categories of “con artist,” “swindler” and “grifter” are not precise and overlap, but generally a “grifter” tries to forge a personal relationship with the victim and then extracts loans and other expensive favors.  A case a few years ago in New York City made headlines when a “mother and son grifter team” lost control of their scheme and murdered their victim, an elderly society heiress.

“Grifter” is an American invention, dating back to the early 20th century, but appears to be based on the slightly older slang term “grafter,” also meaning “swindler,” “con man” or simply “thief.”   Some authorities believe that “grifter” is actually a combination of “grafter” and “drifter,” reflecting the rootless, peripatetic nature of many grifters’ lives.

“Grafter,” in turn, comes from the noun “graft,” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “the obtaining of profit or advantage by dishonest or shady means; the means by which such gains are made, especially bribery, blackmail, or the abuse of a position of power or influence.”  If “graft” sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen it in the all-too-common phrase “graft and corruption” applied to crooked politicians.  The roots of “graft” in this sense are uncertain, but it may be based on an old British slang use of “graft” to mean “dig” or “work,” based on the same root that gave us “grave.”

39 comments to Grifter.

  • In Britain a ‘grafter’ is a term used for someone who works hard.

  • chino

    well this is not Britain this is America where half of the people speak English so who cares what grafter means in Britain. But you are right grifters do work hard so i can see how that would fit them.

  • aurora

    I think people are asking about grifters b/c of the tv show leverage

    • Jessica

      I think it is so weird how english it’s our first language in the U.S., and like 5% of the population speaks properly. Also there is a different accent coming from someone every time you turn around…anyway like I said above….I wanted to know the definition of grifter because of the television show “leverage”

      • Toni

        I think knowing words like grifter as a part of your regular vocabulary depends largely upon your age. People who were alive in the 1930s American depression are well aware of this word and its exact meaning. Unfortunately, that group is dying out now, and their slang (which this word was in its infancy) is passing from daily use. Education would certainly play a part in knowing this definition as well, provided you were studying literature and history. Just as an example, I can tell you that the spell-checker on my new computer did not recognize the word grifter at all.

        Indeed, different accents prevail all over the United States these days. However, that is not new to our country; it is just a phenomena that is “making the rounds” again. Other countries all over the planet have been experiencing multiple accents and multiple dialects of their native languages far longer than we have.

        “Like, 5%…” is not proper English; it is part of a type of jargon or slang popularized in the 1980s. The jargon was called “Valley Girl”, and named for a way of expressing popular slang in certain areas of California. As I recall, Marin Co. and Silicone Valley may have been primary centers. Or, I could be entirely mistaken about those counties – but I’m sure of the state.

        What I enjoyed about your comment is that you have an excellent grip on the fact that we, as a country, are lacking in formal verbal skills. That means you also know there is room for change and learning!

  • Jimmy

    Chino – that’s a bit harsh!

    Grafter in the UK is a common term to describe a hard working person, terms often change from generation to generation our language would never evolve if they didn’t, there are many case where a term meaning one thing suddenly (or gradually) means a completely knew thing. For instance, the term ‘Gay’ in Enid Blyton’s children’s stories means ‘happy’, however as does ‘Queer’ in use in the 1940’s Britain meant ‘funny’, whereas today both are homosexual references.

    There are many many examples of this, and to finish off ‘This is not Britain it is America’ is an amazingly blind comment… ‘This’ is the internet, currently it is my living room in the UK, when you read this page, it will be America, the internet is everywhere and nowhere, it’s a bit sad that you limit yourself and you language to your immediate surroundings…

  • Liz

    Chino, you are aware that English is also spoken in Britain?

  • GJ Walker

    I cannot believe Chino’s statement. “Well, this is not Britain, this is America where half the people speak English. That the deuce does he think they speak in Britain (i.e. England) And NO the majority of people in the United States do not speak proper English, but a bastardized form.

    • Yancy

      “And NO the majority of people in the United States do not speak proper English, but a bastardized form.

      This is a VERY true statement! American is not English. And the ‘grifter’ (as in Leverage) presents the human element of a con, which I must say she does very well ;)

    • Joe

      ‘Bastardized’is not quite accurate. In fact, it’s a little bit offensive. American English is and continues to be an evolving form of the ‘Mother Language’. As a matter of fact The English language as spoken in Great Britain today is also an evolving form of the ‘Mother Language’.

    • JB

      Chino, Chino, Chino…

      Not only did you embarrass yourself, you’ve embarrassed me! As someone else stated – “this” is the WORLD Wide Web – not “America”! As a US citizen, I must also point out that “America” could be South America, Central America, or North America. I’m assuming you ignorantly meant North America, which I might add, could be Mexico, USA, or Canada. So, if one is an American, they could be speaking French, English, Spanish, Mayan, etc.

      Again, I was born and live in the USA and I can’t stand it when people say America when they mean US, USA, or the States – it’s egotistical! Sorry, but even though I’m the minority, this subject is a huge pet peeve of mine. I live in a country of ignorance and arrogance – a dangerous combination!

      So, Chino, please THINK before you write or speak. Because you know, you are representing “America” (and her many countries!).


      • Toni

        JB – I can certainly agree with you on one thing! We do live in a country of ignorance and arrogance on several counts. Education is high on the list. It has been my privilege to be acquainted with people from all over the world because we have the world wide web. I have found relatives in Germany; and made friends in Scotland, Ireland, Belgium and Australia. I’ve possibly made some enemies along the way as well. My point is this, though: the education of United States citizens more than pales when compared to other countries’ efforts. I found this out the hard way, by personal embarrassment and experience. I have been handed a golden opportunity for me to improve my communication skills and my knowledge of literature and world history. I like to think both my ignorance and my arrogance have improved.

  • English is spoken in Britain, also known as England. The English language is actually quite hard to understand in many States in America. I was born and raised in New England. Massachusetts North Shore, Beverly, across the bridge from Salem. I have always had trouble understanding and being understood when ever I ventured out of that part of our country. I believe Grifter is an old word that really isn’t used much now. However, it does mean scam artist, con artist. A Grafter, I personally have never heard. Interesting translation.

  • Grant

    I am so tired of linguistic prejudice. English is spoken all over the world, and that ought not be a matter for blind bigotry, but enjoyment of the variety as we enjoy flowers not all being colored yellow.

  • Jackie

    Chino, you missed a very good oportunity of remaining silent… such unfortunate remarks did you!

    • JB

      Jackie, you just cracked me up! Thanks so much for the endorphins!

    • Toni

      Great response, Jackie!

      Here is a fun exercise for those who want or need (or both) to improve their vocabulary:

      Take your regular school or desk dictionary and open to a random page. Put your finger on a word and read the definition. If you don’t understand ALL of the words in the definition, move along to read about the definitions of those words, too. If you do understand all the words in the first choice, re-do the initial part of the exercise. This can be a lot of fun; especially in light of some of the words added to our dictionaries over the last 15 or so years.

  • Yancy

    Just to clarify a couple of points … I was brought to this site, because I, too am an avid viewer of the show Leverage. Although I had an idea of what a grifter was, I was looking to clarify the definition of one. And here in America, to be technical, we do not speak English. We, in fact speak American. If you were to ask any true Englishman, you would be informed the Americans have done nothing but slaughter the Queen’s English. So, even though we speak ‘English’, there is a very distinction between American and English.

    • JB

      You’ve GOT to be kidding me! American is a language?! Oh my goodness, I have a side ache from laughing so hard! Also, please refer to my reply to Chino (see above).

      My fellow countrypersons are so arrogant…
      My deepest apologies to the rest of the world. You know, besides “America”. (snicker snicker)

      Words DO matter. Think about it…


      • Toni

        Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do! My report cards from the many years I attended school in this country all say I studied “English”. If Yancy’s comment is true and we all speak American; I was fulfilling my foreign language requirement all along. I guess I didn’t need to waste my time on German and Spanish credits. Darn!

  • luna

    I too found this site looking for the meaning of grifter because of the show leverage, and i agree that English and American are totally different. I ran into a huge example when looking up why cancelled is now canceled. And found that when the Webster dictionary was made he wanted to totally separate America from England and started hacking words up and dropping letters.. Like centre became center and so on.. There are many more examples but they didnt all take at the same time.. anyway.. American is a mix of many things. Its not proper English by any means.

    • JB

      I absolutely agree with your statement. However, as someone stated earlier, to say “American” is an actual language is rediculous. USA English is different than British English, both written and spoken. That said, there are regional differences in English within the USA.

      For the most part, I like these differences; they make living more interesting, more colorful.


  • Sharon

    I was also curious because of trailers for TV show. As to different dialects, they develope in all languages due to isolation of groups and common. My uncle thought he would outsmart his parents by taking French in high school. Their dialect from south-eastern France was so different, he still couldn’t understand a thing they said! Lol! A couple from Albequerki went to Mexico City and had the same problem. Many other examples, but suffice it to say, viva la differance.

  • Toni

    Here is a fun exercise for those who want to improve their vocabulary:

    Take your regular school or desk dictionary and open to a random page. Put your finger on a word and read the definition. If you don’t understand ALL of the words in the definition, move along to read about the definitions of those words, too. If you do understand all the words in the first choice, re-do the initial part of the exercise. This can be a lot of fun; especially in light of some of the words added to our dictionaries over the last 15 or so years.

  • Song

    “I like to think both my ignorance and my arrogance have improved.” — Toni

    I, for one, appreciate finely honed ignorance and arrogance. ;-)

  • Yvonne Beasley

    To clarify the American language. When America finally became independent of England, We wanted to make the English language truly American. Samuel Webster, the man responsible for creating the first American dictionary began changing the spelling of English words like honor to make the language American. For example honor in England is spelled honour. Also the Elizabethan forms li,e thus and thou were changed to further more and you. That is why Americans today do not fully understand British English. This also can be researched on the web.

  • Peter billing

    There is one country you have left outAustralia we speak australian english

  • Richard the First

    Dear All

    I am British – my language is English. English is spoken all over the world – I don’t want to go into historical reasons why that is the case – too boring. Suffice to say that English is an evolving language with input from a vast array of “native” speakers. Yes the UK might be the “home” of the language but millions of non-British nationals speak this language and contribute enormously to its evolution. Our US cousins outnumber us 5 to 1 and contribute an incredible amount to the development of the modern English language. In many ways the US is the lead nation from a linguistic perspective. However, all English speakers around the world should embrace each others contributions – even if some so-called purists squirm at some of the more recent ‘developments’! Using wonderful contemporary US expression, all I can say is “deal with it”.

  • JB 2 - a Brit!

    I am also a JB and having read the other JB’s comments here I wondered if perhaps I have been commenting on this website in my sleep as I agree with every comment ?!?
    Anyhow I was looking up the word grifter as it was used by a young London character (born and bred in London) in the TV series ‘Mr Selfridge’ shown here in England recently. The series was set in 1919 and I wondered if the word really would have been part of the English vocabulary then (as opposed to the American where it clearly could have been used) Any ideas??

  • Anonymous

    A grafter is an English word meaning a person who works very hard. Nothing to do with the word Grifter. I was born in the U.K. And had never heard the word grifter until today

  • Edmund Ruffin

    I was startled to see that a “grifter” sells a bridge. I’ve used that reference for decades, but think it might be a bit obscure to some. “I have a bridge to sell you” means “You’re so gullible that you’d try to buy the Brooklyn Bridge” – which you obviously can’t because it’s municipal property.

  • Bdn

    ‘Grifter’ is a term I’ve heard mainly over the last two years. Referring quite rightly to the #45 the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

  • JJ

    I got into this board looking up the word grifter after it was mentioned repeatedly by various commenters in describing the outgoing U.S. pres. and his family–the Trumps.

  • Matthew

    Same here, “grifter” used often in political discourse 2020. Used to describe corrupt politicians.

  • roxana barrale arribillaga

    in the Daily Mail today, talking about pardons, i think…

  • admin

    “The Grifters” was also a well-reviewed film by British director Stephen Frears, his first U.S. production, and produced by Martin Scorsese. It starred, among others, John Cusack, and was based on a 1963 novel by crime writer Jim Thompson.

  • Denis

    Graft may mean corruption but in UK GRAFTER means ONLY a hard worker who really tries his best

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