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shameless pleading

Stitch-up

I wuz framed,

Dear Word Detective: There is a British expression for “setting someone up” to take the blame for some offense, which is “stitching them up.” I read your explanation for “grassing up” someone, which is the equivalent of snitching. But “stitching” is more like “framing” someone. I look forward to learning the origin(s) of this expression. — Scott Jones, Austin, Texas (really from Philadelphia).

Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it made quite an impression. My primary takeaway, as the biz folk say, was that many of your hometown’s motorists have serious perceptual impairments. Some of them seemed to be trying to drive sideways.

I suppose, being the responsible sort, that I should recap my explanation of “grassing,” that British colloquialism for “snitching,” specifically acting as an informer for the police. While one might imagine a connection to the very old expression “snake in the grass” (meaning “a sly betrayer”), this “grass” is actually short for “grasshopper,” rhyming slang for “copper” (i.e., a cop), and “grassing” means working for (or actually being) the police. (Rhyming slang, common among the working classes of Britain and Australia, uses a system of rhymes to disguise the words actually meant.)

To “stitch” originally meant “to stab or pierce,” based on the noun “stitch,” which developed from the same Germanic roots that gave us “stick.” A “stitch” could be a wound (as from being poked with something sharp), a sharp pain in the side, a fit of laughing (e.g., “in stitches,” probably from the pain of prolonged laughing) or each loop left by a threaded needle as it passes through fabric, etc. “To stitch,” similarly, means “to fasten together with stitches,” as in making clothes from fabric or shoes from leather, or closing a wound by using surgical stitching. The phrase “to stitch up,” first appearing in the late 16th century, initially meant “to put together by sewing,” with the implication that the work is done in a hurry. Subsequent senses also carried overtones of emergency repair work or a “rush job,” as well as of restricting, restraining or closing off something (“I am sure he would rather have stitch’d up his lips, or bit off his tongue, than have spoken a word…” 1712).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “stitch-up” in the sense you mention as “An act of manipulating a situation in order to reach a desired outcome, especially by dishonorable or dishonest means, such as abuse of a position of power or influence; a conspiracy or plot, especially to incriminate a person on false evidence.” In common use since at least 1980, “stitch-up” (it’s usually hyphenated) is a bit broader than a “frame-up,” which is usually purely a question of false evidence and/or malicious prosecution. A “stitch-up” can also be a corrupt arrangement that thwarts justice but isn’t necessarily illegal (“[He] accused the Government of a ‘cynical stitch-up with BP management’ over the job losses and asset sales.” 1989).

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