The Grammarphobia Blog

An underhanded expression

Q: One of my pet peeves is hearing people say “pawn off” when they mean “palm off.” Why do they say that? Don’t they understand the deception involved? The underhandedness implied (pun intended)?

A: To “palm off” something, as you know, is to hand it off, or get rid of it, and the Oxford English Dictionary has citations dating back to 1822. This expression is probably the source of the now common phrase “pawn off,” which The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes as to get rid of deceptively, as in “to pawn off the fake gemstone as a diamond.”

Both expressions are now accepted as common English idioms, though you’re right—“pawn off” implies that there’s cheating going on and that the “goods” being pawned off are bogus.

Interestingly, in the 19th century the verb “palm” had many underworld connotations. To conceal something in the palm of one’s hand, like a bribe or a tip or a stolen item, was to “palm” it. Hence the terms “palm oil” (an illicit bribe) and “palming”: petty theft involving two people, one to distract the shop owner while the other “palmed” the goods.

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