pulling the wool

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Apr 23 20:30:22 UTC 2010

It appeared that thieves . . . have a set of technicalities by which they can carry on their dialogues in the most public assemblages with comparative security, such as "sand lay," "coal lay," "hauling the wool over their eyes," &c. which mean that one should divert the attention of the store-keeper or clerk, by the purchase of sand or coal, whilst the other pillages the drawer, and afterwards "pulling the wool over his eyes," by returning and enquiring the time, or on some other petty excuse which may tend to lull suspicion.
New York Times, September 5, 1834, p. 2, cols. 3-4
(not the present NYTimes, which began publ. in 1851)

[a villain is accused of robbing a grocery store; evidently such places sold both coal and sand in small quantities, from open containers -- in this case the clerk went to scoop 6 cents worth of coal from a bin on the sidewalk in front of the store.]

OED, under "wool":
(b) 1839 Jamestown (N.Y.) Jrnl. 24 Apr. 1/6 That lawyer has been trying to spread the wool over your eyes. 1842 Spirit of Times (Phila.) 29 Sept. (Th.), Look sharp, or they'll pull wool over your eyes. 1855 F. M. WHITCHER Widow Bedott xv. (1883) 55 He ain't so big a fool as to have the wool drawd over his eyes in that way. a1859 in Bartlett Dict. Amer. (ed. 2) 517 They think they find a prize, If they can only pull their wool o'er other people's eyes. 1884 HOWELLS Silas Lapham vii, I don't propose he shall pull the wool over my eyes.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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