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shameless pleading

Gyp / Rip off

Most things are, ultimately, Janis Joplin’s fault.

Dear Word detective: Merriam-Webster’s gives the following dates for “gyp” and “rip off”: gyp (noun) 1750, gyp (verb) 1880, rip off (transitive verb) 1967, rip-off (noun) 1969. The definitions are different, but the fading usage of “gyp” and the rise of “rip-off” leads me to believe that one has pretty much replaced the other.

Since the socially aware ’60s, anyone who used the word “gyp” has been suspected of being prejudiced against a certain European ethnic group, so a replacement had to be found. The unknown Beatnik or Hippie who coined the phrase “rip off” might have been inspired by the act of quickly grabbing something and running off with it. Maybe the originator was also a thief, shoplifter or pickpocket! But where did the usage start? Perhaps London, or Venice Beach, or Haight-Ashbury?

In America, usage of the noun “rip-off” was boosted tremendously when Janis Joplin said it one night on the Dick Cavett Show. The immediate reaction of the show’s live audience revealed that it was the first time they had ever heard this odd but very descriptive bit of slang, and the millions of TV viewers probably reacted the same way.

I would appreciate any help in tracking down the earliest known usage of the phrase “rip off.” — Brian Kraft.

For the benefit of readers who may be a bit confused by your reference to “a certain European ethnic group,” I should explain that we’re talking about Gypsies (so-called, incidentally, because they were originally erroneously thought to have come from Egypt). The only real contribution I can make to your thesis is to note that most sources identify “rip off” as originating in the Black community sometime during the 1960s. It was certainly popularized in Middle America by the late-1960s hippie culture (along with many other items of Black slang), but I doubt that anyone adopted the term as a conscious “replacement” for “gyp.” I think “gyp” has simply faded as people became more aware of the hurtful potential of some ethnically-biased slang words and phrases — the same fate that befell “Indian giver,” “welsh” and other phrases of that ilk.

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