Since So Many Republicans Called the Democratic Budget Plan a “Sham”…


This from the Oxford English Dictionary:

The origin of the word ‘sham’ is shrouded in relative obscurity and dates back several hundred years.

Its earliest recorded use is in 1677. However, the word first appeared in the context of English slang, where it quickly gained popularity and widespread usage.

Sham is suggestive to being connected with the north England dialect word “sham,” meaning “shame,” however, its earliest recorded contexts appear to be contradictory to that definition.

Sham developed several meanings as it evolved into the English language, but the first recorded example was in context defining it as a hoax, trick, fraud, or otherwise as something devised to delude or disappoint expectations.

This first example is that of Lady Chaworth, in a letter to the Secretary stating, “…some feare..that tis rather a sham to prevent stricter scherch.”

The word also appeared, in various time periods, in different recordings under different spellings but retained the same generalized meaning.

For example, in 1898 Chaloner, in an account of the discovery of Moyses’ Tombe wrote that, “…’Twas a pretty while before the shamme was detected.”

Tracing back to sham’s earliest appearances, it’s first evolution was in 1681, as it was altered to mean “Of immaterial things: pretended, feigned.”

For example, a sham fight would be a mimic battle between two divisions of a military or naval force for display or practice.

Other such terms using this adaptation include “sham-plots”, “sham-treat”, “sham zeal”, and “sham-truths”.

This, in turn, was directed towards material things or substances in 1708 by Swift’s Hist. Vanbrugh’s Ho: “And so he resolved a house to build: A real house…Not a sham thing of clay or cards.”

By 1728, this had been adapted to include something intended to be confused, or mistaken for something, such as a counterfeit.

This usage was applied by Morgan in the Algiers I List of Subscribers: ” …By retaining such a number of Names tho’ Shams I might have showed away pompously.”

This meaning then evolved into being applied to persons with Carlyle’s 1850 Latter-d Pamphlet: “The greatest sham, I have always thought, is he that would destroy shams.”

While these new meanings continued to develop, the old ones did not die. Thus, through constant change, adaptation and evolution of the original slang term, the word developed several different meanings, which could, like the majority of English words, be determined by their context.

Sham was also used as a verb since it’s earliest origins, whereupon it branched off into yet more syntaxes and definitions. The generalized and most obvious of these is to cheat, deceive or delude.

As early as 1688, Shadwell’s work Alsatia used this meaning of the verb in dialogue: “Sirrah! Most audacious rogue! Do you sham me?”

The verb also took upon meanings including “to deprive of something by ”shamming,” to put off, “fob off” with something deceptive or worthless, to rid oneself of an accusation by deceit, to be or to produce a deceptive imitation of,” etc.

Also, rather than simply doing the deceiving, to ‘sham’ also took upon the definition of assuming the appearance of counterfeit. Other adaptations to the verb are traceable, but they exist only as slight alterations of the original to deceive or delude definition.

Over the course of 200 some odd years, sham has unquestionably evolved, changed, and adapted but it has not faded away. The term is common-place into today’s modern American English and is defined, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, as “something false or fake; person or thing that is a fraud.” This English-born word can be traced throughout time as it evolved and took upon new and different meanings, but despite all, the original generalized definition is what yet remains this very day.




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  1. Greg; This is wonderful! It should be part of your thesis for a graduate degree in English literature or some such. Keep them coming!

    Thank you.


    Comment by Bernie — 6.16.2011 @ 7:59 pm

  2. Do you have your own OED–and the library shelf space it requires—or do you use one elsewhere?

    Comment by Fred Hiestand — 6.17.2011 @ 8:18 pm

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