Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Spivs and Bankers

The word ‘spiv’ has, rather surprisingly, come back into everyday usage in the UK. The Government’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, made a speech in which he referred to some bank employees as ‘spivs’ and gamblers.

While the word ‘spiv’ has never completely gone away, until Mr Cable’s speech, I had assumed that it was a quaintly antiquated word. The heyday of the spiv was during the second world war. Typically, a spiv was someone who, while not an out-and-out villain, was not entirely honest either. When luxuries were in short supply, the spiv could find some way of obtaining them - at a price.

Four classic spivs (from top-left, clockwise): Flash Harry (George Cole), Max Miller, Private Walker (James Beck) and perhaps the ultimate incarnation, Arthur English

Partridge’s Dictionary Of Slang defines ‘spiv’ as “One who lives by his wits - within the law” and dates the word to about 1890. By 1946, the word more specifically described “small town touts and racketeers”. Partridge gives the word the same origin as ‘spiffing’ (neat, smart, dandified), presumably in reference to the spiv’s habit of dressing in loud and flashy suits - a habit which has been portrayed by well-known fictional spivs such as Private Walker (James Beck) from the BBC TV comedy, Dad’s Army and Flash Harry (George Cole) in the St. Trinian’s films. Two comedians, Arthur English, and Max Miller, also adopted variants of the classic ‘spiv’ image. The thing about all these spivs is that they are ‘likeable rogues’ (Max Miller was called ‘The Cheeky Chappie’, Arthur English was “The Prince of the Wide Boys”).

The classic version of the spiv generally wears a double-breasted suit with big lapels, a loud kipper tie and a small trilby hat set at a jaunty angle.

The Cassell Dictionary Of Slang believes that the word ‘spiv’ may either derive from Romany (spiv=sparrow, a term for someone who picks up the leavings of others) or else from the inversion of VIPs or from SPIV - a police abbreviation Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants. None of these explanations sounds entirely convincing to me and, moreover, would seem to contradict the Partridge’s claimed ‘spiffing’ derivation. The OED, incidentally, gives ‘spiff’ as (1959) “the percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock”. That sounds a credible source for ‘spiv’ in the wartime sense.

But whatever its derivation, I very much doubt if the wartime spivs ever imagined that the term might one day be applied to city bankers earning eye-watering bonuses!

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