The return of the spiv
One consequence of the current media focus (which continues today, with the Mirror describing his tactics as “sleazy”. Ed.) on the business activities of Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps (right) has been a linguistic one.
Many people have rediscovered a word which came to prominence during World War 2 – spiv.
This word has often been used by those commenting on online articles on Shapps’ dubious business activities to describe the man himself.
A man, typically a flashy dresser, who makes a living by disreputable dealings.
During World War 2 those disreputable dealings usually meant that spivs circumvented the strict rationing regulations and/or could procure commodities or items that were hard to get.
The spiv was personified during my younger years by Private Joe Walker (left) in the TV comedy Dad’s Army. Walker was played by actor James Beck, who died suddenly at the age of 44 during production of the programme’s sixth series in 1973. In the series, Walker is a valuable asset to the platoon, due to his many “business” connections and his uncanny ability to conjure up almost anything that is rationed or no longer in the shops due to the war – and he will also have it in vast supply (for a price).
For a generation older than mine, the spiv was perhaps characterised by comedians such as Arthur English (right), whose usual persona in the early days of his career was a stereotypical wartime “spiv”. As a consequence of this persona, Arthur English became known as “The Prince of the Wide Boys” (meaning in this context a man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing. Ed.). Wide boy is also a term that could possibly be applied to Shapps as an alternative to spiv.
As regards the origins of spiv, there are several possibilities.
Oxford dictionaries reckons it originates in the 1930s and is perhaps related to “spiffy“, meaning “smart in appearance”, which dates back to 19th century slang in this context.
Another possibility is that it’s related to “spiff“, a bonus for salespeople (especially for drapers but later for car salesmen, etc.) for managing to sell excess or out of fashion stock. The seller might offer a discount, by splitting his commission with the customer. A seller of stolen goods could give this explanation for a bargain price.
Yet another suggested origin is that it comes from the nickname of Henry “Spiv” Bagster, a small-time London crook in the early 1900s who was frequently arrested for illegal street trading and confidence tricks. National newspapers reported his court appearances in 1903-06.
Furthermore, it has been speculated that it is VIPs backwards. In addition, further speculation has it that the word was also a police acronym for Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants.
Finally, there are also hints that it could have been borrowed from Romany. In that tongue, spiv is a word for sparrow, implying the person is a petty criminal rather than a serious “villain”.
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