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Scrambled yeggs?

Q: Your article about “yegg” traces its use for a bank robber back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a recent reprint of an 1856 article in Scientific American uses “yeggman” similarly. Evidently the word originated long before your citations.

A: The date on that Scientific American reprint is wrong; it should be 1906, not 1856. The brief item mushes together two sections of an extensive article published on Jan. 27, 1906. We emailed the magazine for a comment but it hasn’t responded.

The Jan. 2, 2020, reprint that you saw was among the “Artifacts From the Archive” published to celebrate the magazine’s 175th anniversary. We reproduce it here in its entirety:

Want to Crack Open a Safe? Try Nitroglycerine

Originally published in January 1856

Today the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. For the introduction of nitroglycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated onerous labor, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one. The modern “yeggman,” however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.
Scientific American, January 1856

The original 1906 Scientific American article, headlined “The Ungentle Art of Burglary,” includes the following sections, which were edited and linked in the reprint:

Burglary—specifically safe-breaking—has in the last decade gradually ceased to be an exact science. To-day the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful instruments and tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. The modern “yeggman,” tramping it casually along a country road with a three-ounce phial of nitro-glycerine, a tiny battery, a few yards of wire, and an ignition-cap in his pocket, is able to open and rob almost any kind of a safe, if not with neatness, certainly with dispatch. No longer is the ambitious “strong-arm” man doomed to hours of exhausting and necessarily noiseless drilling, wedging, spreading, or jacking; for the introduction of nitro-glycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated these onerous labors, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one.

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The yeggman, however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it, and consequently the selection of the valuables desired from the contents of the strongbox is often so hurried that it is only partially successful. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.

As we say in our June 19, 2015, post about “yegg,” it apparently showed up in the late 19th century as a noun for a beggar and a verb meaning to beg. A reader of our blog found both usages in the Jan. 14, 1894, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

It’s uncertain how “yegg” and “yeggman” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker. The most common suggestion is that the criminal use derives from “John Yegg,” the alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest examples we’ve found, from 1901, appeared almost five years before the original Scientific American piece.

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