DECOY n2 -- Antedating and Comment

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton3 at VIRGINMEDIA.COM
Tue Mar 12 16:39:54 UTC 2013

The entry in the OED for DECOY n2 gives, as the original sense of the word,
a physical construction designed to entice ducks, with a suggested etymology
derived from the Dutch "kooi":

decoy, n.2
Etymology:  Decoy , in all its senses (exc. 4a) and combinations, was
preceded by a simple form coy n.1 (known in 1621), < Dutch kooi of the same
1. A pond or pool out of which run narrow arms or ‘pipes’ covered with
network or other contrivances into which wild ducks or other fowl may be
allured and there caught.

[1626–41   Spelman in Payne-Gallwey Bk. Duck Decoys (1886) 2   Sir W.
Wodehouse (who lived in the reign of James I., 1603–25) made among us the
first device for catching Ducks, known by the foreign name of a koye.]
a1640   J. Fletcher et al. Faire Maide of Inne iv. ii, in F. Beaumont & J.
Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) sig. Ggggggg/1,   You are worse then simple
widgins, and will be drawne into the net by this decoy ducke, this tame

        Sense 4a, to which the beginning of the entry [above] refers, is as
follows, with a first citation from 1618:

4. Applied to a person:

†a. A swindler, sharper; an impostor or ‘shark’ who lives by his wits at the
expense of his dupes. Obs.

(It is, from the early date and sense, very doubtful if this belongs to this
word. In the ‘character’ by Brathwait (quot. 1631), there is no reference
explicit or implicit to the action of a decoy-duck. It rather looks as if
this were a slang term already in use when coys and coy-ducks were
introduced into England, and as if coy-duck were changed into decoy-duck
with allusion to this.)

1618   G. Mynshul Ess. Prison 30   Iaylors..are..indeed for the most part
the very off-scum of the rascall multitude, as Cabbage-carriers, Decoyes,
Bum-bayliffes, disgraced Purseuants, Botchers..and a rabble of such
stinkardly companions.

        Several antedatings for DECOY in OED sense 4a, "A swindler, sharper
[etc.]" exist.  The earliest I've found is in Thomas Dekker in 1607:

                        1607 – Dekker – Jests to Make You Merry:

… some foysts, some stals, some Iuglers, some Glimerers, some morts, some
lifts, some decoyes, all cunning knaues and cosoning queans …

        See also:

                        1612 – Winchester Confessions:

(p. 15)  A note of such as are called foystes alias pickpockettes, Liftes
alias conveyors of wares of all sortes from menns standinges at Fayres as
also decoyes alias versers whare divers carders & cheaters …

(p. 6) [Margin]  Decoyes or Versers [opposite list of names]

Alan McGowan (ed.), The Winchester Confessions 1615-1616 (Romany and
Traveller Family History Scoiety, 1996)

                        1614 – Taylor -- The nipping and snipping of abuses

...: All my Buzeaka's, my  Decoyes , and lifts : No...

NOTE:  Dekker, Winchester Confessions, and Taylor all link DECOYS and LIFTS.
Winchester Confessions glosses with the older Cant term, “verser”
[originally Sharper’s Jargon in Walker, Diceplay (1550)].

                        1617 – Middleton – A Fair Quarrel

Middleton, Thomas , A faire quarrell (1617)

...a hone, No Cheaters nor  Decoyes , Shall haue a share,...

                        1618 --  ANON, I would you neuer had said so

...And eke the cheating vasse Decoy, poore country men doe sooth:...

                        1620 – Melton  --  Astrologaster

... Gilts, Lifts,  Decoyes, or Dyuers Hose vnsurueyed ...

.... Cutpurses. Gilts.  Decoyes. Cancer. Brewers. Dray-...

                        1621 – Taylor – A shilling

Taylor, John, A shilling or, The trauailes of twelue-pence , [London :
Printed by Edward Allde for Henry Gosson, 1621]

To Sharkes, Stales, Nims, Lifts, Foysts, Cheats, Stands, Decoyes,
T'a Cut-purse, and a Pocket picking Hound …

                        1622 – Taylor -- The water-cormorant

Taylor, John, The water-cormorant his complaint against a brood of
land-cormorants. Diuided into fourteene satyres. By Iohn Taylor. , London :
Printed by George Eld, 1622.

Can play the Foist, the Nip, the Stale, the Stand,
The Snap, the Curb, the Crosbite, Warp, and List,
Decoy, prig, Cheat, (all for a hanging shift.)

"Decoy" in the sense of a person associated with criminal pursuits is, then,
fairly widespread in the early seventeenth century, as part of the criminal
argot of the period, and this use pre-dates the other senses listed in the
OED under DECOY n2.  If it is thus separated from the Dutch "kooi", another
etymology suggests itself, from the French "décevoir" - to deceive.  The
currency of the French term can be illustrated from John Palsgrave,
_Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse_ (1530), where in the “Table of
Verbs”, we find the following (DDD1r):

I Deceyue I begyle one/  Ie decoys, nous decepuons, ilz decoyuent, ie
deceus, iay deceu, ie deceueray, que ie decoyue, decepuoyr. tercie con.
If you trust me I wyll nat deceyue you: Sy vous vous fiez en moy ie ne vous
deceueray poynt.
I deceyue hym: Ie luy decoys, and for dyuers other verbes of this
signyfycacion loke afore in I begyle / and ie bille. prime coniuga.

I would like to suggest that the earliest (and primary) meaning of DECOY is
a deceptive accomplice of criminals (Cant), and it is from this that most of
the later senses and citations given in the OED under DECOY n2 derive.
DECOY DUCK is an extension of this (parallel to STALL in its Cant sense),
and that DECOY in the sense of a building is a later and distinct sense,
introduced in the context of the already-existing meaning of “decoy”, and
that the etymology suggested for this revised set of entries is French
rather than Dutch.

Robin Hamilton

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list