A web of deception. Lies. All resulting in the financial loss in the victim, with almost nothing good in return. It comes in many different forms, from the street, to your phone as robocalls, or to your emails in your spam folder. With it, comes many different terminologies specifying the type of deception, like the Nigerian prince (or 419 fraud), sha zhu pan, or fake tech support. These fraudulent acts all fall under a certain umbrella term many of us would refer to as a scam.
Legally speaking, however, these scams would fall under the term fraud. Defined as “a false representation of a matter of fact — whether by words or by conduct, by false or misleading allegations, or by concealment of what should have been disclosed — that deceives and is intended to deceive another so that the individual will act upon it to his or her legal injury”, the word fraud would seem to cover a wider range of use cases. Coming from the Latin word fraus, and subsequently reconstructed as *dʰrewgʰ- in Proto-Indo-European, this word has largely preserved its original meaning of “deceit”, “cheating”, “fraud”, “delusion”, or “bad or ill intent”.
Having been on a binge of the scambaiting genre on YouTube (through channels like Jim Browning, Scammer Payback, and Kitboga), my mind gravitated to one thing, aside from the social engineering and manipulation the scammer has on the victim, and the potential financial, emotional, and other forms of damaged that would be incurred if a scam successfully goes through. This one thing is the word origin.
Like deception, cons, and other forms of fraud, the word scam is not actually new, despite its increasing use in our lexicon in recent times. However, a simple Google search on its etymology does not reveal much. Does this mean that the word scam just spontaneously arose? Or is there a better explanation for this?
A less serious word origin would point towards an amalgamation of the words scandalous misdeeds, similar to how the word spam supposedly derived from spiced ham. As simple as it sounds, there is hardly any evidence in the corpus to back this up. This word must be hiding a lot more history that just this.
Perhaps a duller, but more plausible origin would be in English’s Germanic origins, or otherwise interactions with the Irish language. But firstly, let’s take a look at the relatively recent past.
The word “scam” was notably used in the 1960s in the US as a carnival term, or a slang, to mean “to trick”, “to perpetrate a fraud”, and “to rip off”. Some have pointed this origin to a closely-sounding word from the UK, called “scamp”. Probably originating in the 18th century, this was likely used to refer to highway robbers, although another word was used since the 19th century to refer to similar criminals, called “rascal”. The etymology for “scamp” traces back to Middle Dutch schampen, meaning “to slip away”, and further back, Old French escamper, which meant “to make one’s escape”. This derives from the Latin word ex campo, which I am rather unclear on what this translates to. It could be “from the camp” or something like that.
This is perhaps the furthest some sources have reached, but I think that I have barely scratched the surface here. Which other avenues do we have to further dig into?
Well, English is a Germanic language, and chances are, there could be some words tracing back to its Germanic roots at some point in its history. This could be from languages like Old Norse, for example. Another language to examine would be Irish, given the arguably long history, and by extension, interactions between English and Irish.
The Irish word, or rather, cognate we could find in relation to the word “scam” is “cam”. It likely was called camm in the times of the Old Irish language, which meant “crooked”, or “bent”. While the meaning “crooked” could suggest something about the crooked modus operandi scammers have, it is very likely that this word could have been used to refer to the crooked appearance of things like tree branches. To support this, the Old Irish word camm also carried the meanings of “curved”, “twisted”, and when used to refer to hair, “wavy”, and “curly”. So that seems like yet another dead end.
But how about its Old Norse origins? This takes us down on a more different path, as it was proposed that scam could have derived from the Old Danish skam, and Old Norse’s skomm, both of which have meanings closer to “shame” and “dishonour”. Another meaning would be “something regrettable”, but it is unclear how this links to the actual act of “scamming”, which is an act of defrauding someone or something. Could it be the shame brought upon the victim for their gullibility, or the shame brought upon the scammer when their cover gets blown? Speculations like this sort of stretches the relations or semantics a bit too much, so this is probably where I would leave this, especially when I am unclear of whichever consonant shifts are involved to arrive at the word scam (how common was a /sk/ -> /sh/ shift like in skam to shame?).
So to conclude, is there really a set origin for the word scam? Well, not really. While all of these theories for its origins do sound arguably plausible, when we consult the corpus texts, or delve further into how this word changed over time, this evidence starts to get quite scant. Maybe the the Google result was right, that the etymology is unclear, but not because there are no proposed theories, rather, because there are several proposed theories that have rather little evidence to come by to justify its etymology.