The Grammarphobia Blog

A bad yegg

Q: Would you be able to help? I’m trying to find the origin of the word “yegg.” It seems to be an Americanism, but so far all I’ve been able to learn is that its origin is unknown.

A: Yes, standard dictionaries generally say the origin of “yegg” (or “yeggman”) is uncertain or unknown, but there are several theories about where the term comes from.

The most common suggestion is that this slang term for a burglar or safecracker is derived from John Yegg, the name or alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as we can tell, the name “John Yegg” appeared in this context for the first time in an account of the annual convention of the American Bankers’ Association on Oct. 2-4, 1900, in Richmond, VA.

A report on crimes involving banks describes how “$540 stolen from the Scandinavian American Bank (member A. B. A.), St. Paul, Minn., on August 9, 1899, by professional sneak thieves, was returned to the bank in an express package.”

A letter accompanying the money, signed “JOHN YEGG & CO.,” reportedly said, “having been hounded by the detectives all over the country, we concluded the wisest thing to do was to make restitution.”

The account adds that “Wm. Barrett, one of the thieves believed to have been concerned in this robbery, was arrested at Milwaukee, Wis., on August 26, 1899, for this and another crime.”

This story about fearful outlaws returning their loot sounds too good to be true. We suspect that Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which handled security for the ABA, may have embellished it.

However, Pinkerton’s is probably responsible for popularizing the use of the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” for a burglar or bank robber, especially one who roams the country and cracks safes with explosives.

In a Sept. 15, 1901, interview with the New York Times, Robert Pinkerton, who ran the detective agency’s New York office, said, “This class of men have become very expert in the use of explosives.”

“The stuff for blowing open safes is carried from place to place in rubber bottles or hot water bags, and if they are discovered by the police, the ‘Yeggs’ claim that they are lung protectors,” Pinkerton added.

He noted that “many of the banks robbed are in small towns, where there is no police protection, and mostly in towns where lights are turned out at midnight or before.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang cites several other theories, including one that traces the term to “John Yeager who led a gang of tramps who robbed the Reading railroad,” and another that says it’s a corruption of “yekk,” a word for beggar “from one of the many dialects spoken in Chinatown” in San Francisco.

We lean toward the “John Yegg” theory. The Oxford English Dictionary appears to lean that way too. It describes the usage as an Americanism and adds: “Said to be the surname of a certain American burglar and safe-breaker.”

The earliest example of “yegg” in the OED is from the June 23, 1903, issue of the New York Evening Post: “The prompt breaking up of the organized gangs of professional beggars and yeggs.”

However, we found this earlier example in the February 1901 issue of McClure’s Magazine. Josiah Flynt, writing about the criminal population in Chicago, said the “great majority are what certain detectives call ‘Yegg-men.’ ”

You don’t see the terms “yegg” and “yeggman” much nowadays. They rose in popularity during the early 1900s, reached a peak in the ’20s, and then quickly fell out of favor, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

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