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.”