Dear Word Detective: I am wondering if you can help — I have asked many cockneys and have not gleaned any information. The English slang word “kite” refers to a bank check. But what are its origins? — Raj Oberoi.
Thanks for an interesting question. I see that you’re writing from a UK email address, which explains the “cockney” reference, but I’m wondering how literally you are using the term. Strictly speaking, “cockney” refers to those born in the East End of London, and comes from the Middle English “cokenei,” or “cock’s egg,” the runt of the nest (as if from an egg laid by a rooster, not a hen). The term was evidently used to mean “pampered child” by country folk and applied to city dwellers in general before being narrowed to mean one particular group of Londoners.
Most of us, hearing the word “kite,” think of the flying contraption traditionally made of light wood and paper. Although I haven’t flown one in years, I actually belong to the International Kitefliers Association, having been enrolled in the 1960s by the IKA’s founder, the late Will Yolen, a friend of my father. While Mr. Yolen is gone, I presume my membership is still valid, since the IKA charter stipulated ”No meetings, no dues, no publications, only kite flying.”
Interestingly, however, the familiar paper “kite” is a figurative use of the word. The real “kite” is a bird of prey, a species similar to the falcon, notable for its forked tail. The term “kite” can be traced back to the Old English “cyta,” but no further — no other language has a related word. The paper “kite” took its name in the mid-17th century because, like the bird, a paper kite appears to hover nearly motionless in the air.
That sense of “hovering” with no visible means of support led, in the early 19th century, to the use of “kite” in financial circles to mean bonds or promissory notes used to raise money on credit. Issuers of such “trust us” documents were said to be “flying a kite.” By the 1920s, “kite” was being used in slang, especially in the criminal underground, to mean a check, particularly one forged or written without sufficient funds in the issuing bank. As a verb, “to kite” today means to write a check without the funds to back it up.