Con du jour.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently listening to Maddy Prior’s rendition of the song “Rigs of the Time.” I’m curious — what exactly is the meaning of that phrase? I’m not familiar with the use of the word “rig” in that context. Any insights? — Gwyn.

That’s a great question. I’m not familiar with Maddy Prior as far as I know, but I must have heard her at some point because Wikipedia says she was in the British folk group Steeleye Span back in the 1970s. “Rigs of the Time” sounded vaguely familiar, but that’s probably because the late Sandy Denny (of Fairport Convention) recorded it as well and I was a big fan at one time. Like many of the best English folk songs, “Rigs of the Time” is very old, probably, in some form, dating back to at least the 18th century. The song is essentially a catalog of the little cons, rackets and outrages that various malefactors visit on working people, from the butcher who puts his thumb on the scale to the barkeep who overcharges for a glass full of suds. The refrain runs: “Honesty’s all out of fashion / These are the rigs of the time / Time, me boys, / These are the rigs of the time.” Apparently Maddy Prior released a version of the song in 1999 that replaced the butcher and so on with multinational corporations, public utilities and supermarkets as the villains, but I prefer the original. That new version sounds a bit too much like what we used to call a “singing leaflet.”

There are several “rigs” in English, the most common of which is the noun that appeared, apparently from Scandinavian sources, in the late 16th century meaning “the particular arrangement of the sails, masts, etc., of a ship” (more often now called “rigging”). This “rig,” which came from the verb “to rig” meaning “to prepare a ship to go to sea,” eventually went on to be used to mean “a horse-drawn vehicle” (and, by extension, a large truck) as well as any sort of complicated equipment intended for a particular purpose (“I consider the Victor mill & Cook’s evaporator the best rig for making sirup profitably from cane,” 1868).

The “rig” in “Rigs of the Time,” however, is a different noun, dating to the mid-17th century, meaning “a trick, swindle, or dishonest scheme” (“These two gentlemen having by turns perused Mr. Pickwick’s billet, the one expressed his opinion that it was ‘a rig’ …” Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens, 1837). The origin of this “rig” is uncertain; it is possible that it’s actually a metaphorical use of the common “rig” in the “specialized machinery” sense (in this case, a “mechanism” to defraud). Thus “rigs of the times” would be scams and shady practices commonly encountered in, and perhaps defining, today’s world.

In any case, “rig” in the dishonest sense is probably best known today as a verb meaning “to manipulate in an underhanded, dishonest manner,” as in “rigging an election” or “rigging the stock market” by causing prices to rise or fall (“The Tea men … have been merrily rigging the market, so much that the prices have gone up about 4d. per lb.” 1841).

But a “rig” can be a small con, too, as “Rigs of the Times” indicates. One enduringly popular (at least among con artists) “rig” is the “thimblerig,” in which the victim, usually just a passerby on a street corner, is challenged to pick which of three thimbles hides a pea beneath it. The name “thimblerig” appeared in the early 19th century, but the con itself is probably ancient and has gone by the name “the shell game” in the US (where the thimble was often replaced with walnut shells). When playing cards are used, it’s known as “Three-Card Monte” and the challenge is to pick the ace among three face-down cards. Not surprisingly, the only people who ever win any of these “rigs” are the shills and ringers hired by the “thimblerigger” to lure onlookers into falling for the scam. The one good legacy of several centuries of such “rigs” has been the term “thimblerigger” itself, a fine word for a con artist since around 1831.

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