The Grammarphobia Blog

The shill of it all

Q: I love Origins of the Specious and intend to shill it whenever I can, which brings me to the reason I’m writing: Is the word “shill” derived from the British shilling?

A: I’m glad you like the book, but I may have to disappoint you about the origin of “shill” in the sense of to pose as a satisfied customer to encourage buyers.

The word first showed up in the United States in the early 20th century, as a verb in 1914 and as a noun in 1916, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines the verb as to “act as a shill” and the noun as a “decoy or accomplice, esp. one posing as an enthusiastic or successful customer to encourage other buyers, gamblers, etc.”

The dictionary describes “shill” as “slang (chiefly N. Amer.)” and says it may be an abbreviation of “shillaber” (1913), which the dictionary simply defines as a shill. As for the etymology of “shillaber,” the OED says, “Origin unknown.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology also makes a possible “shillaber” connection and adds that the usage was probably of “circus or carnival” origin.

The “shilling,” a former British monetary unit, is derived from an Old Frisian or Old Saxon coin called the skilling, according to the Chambers reference.

The dictionary’s etymologists speculate that the word may ultimately be derived from one of three ancient roots: skell (to resound), skel (to divide, as of gold or silver), and skeld (shield).

None of my language references connect “shill” and “shilling,” but I suppose it’s possible a coin that rings true and a shill that sings false may ultimately descend from an ancient root that resounds. I wouldn’t put money on it, though.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.