Last updated
A man dressed as a spiv selling goods "from the back of a lorry" at a 2011 historical re-enactment, complete with a look-out watching for the law Man dressed as a spiv.jpg
A man dressed as a spiv selling goods "from the back of a lorry" at a 2011 historical re-enactment, complete with a look-out watching for the law

In the United Kingdom, the word spiv is slang for a type of petty criminal who deals in illicit, typically black market, goods. The word was particularly used during the Second World War and in the post-war period when many goods were rationed due to shortages.


According to Peter Wollen, "The crucial difference between the spiv and the classic Hollywood gangster was the degree of sympathy the spiv gained as an intermediary in the transfer of black market goods to ... a grateful mass of consumers." [1]


The origin of the word is obscure. According to Eric Partridge [2] the word was originally racecourse slang, but had become widely accepted by 1950. It appeared in a paperback crime novel in 1934. [3]

The Oxford English Dictionary states that it may come from:

Other suggestions have been made, most commonly noting that spiv is also a Romani word for a sparrow, implying the person is a petty criminal rather than a serious "villain" [7] or that it is an American police acronym for Suspicious Person Itinerant Vagrant, [8] though this is an unlikely formation and is probably a backronym. [5]

The word was popularized by Bill Naughton in a September 1945 News Chronicle article, "Meet the Spiv". [9]


The spiv had a characteristic look which has been described as "A duck's arse haircut, Clark Gable moustache, rakish trilby [hat], drape-shape jacket, and loud garish tie ... [which] all represented a deliberate snook cocked at wartime austerity." [10]

The comedian Arthur English had a successful career immediately after the Second World War appearing as a spiv with a pencil moustache, wide-brimmed hat, light-coloured suit and a large bright patterned tie. [11]

Spiv cycle films

A series of British crime films produced between 1945 and 1950, during the time that rationing was still in effect, dealt with the black market and related underworld, and have been termed spiv movies or the spiv cycle by critics. [12] Examples are Brighton Rock and Night and the City in which the spiv is a main character. Other crime films which have been cited as part of the spiv cycle – though not always featuring a spiv character, just criminal dealings – are They Made Me a Fugitive , It Always Rains on Sunday , Odd Man Out , No Way Back , The Third Man and Waterloo Road . [13]

Other appearances

See also

Related Research Articles

Rhyming slang Any system of slang in which a word is replaced with a phrase that rhymes with it.

Rhyming slang is a form of slang word construction in the English language. It is especially prevalent in the UK, Ireland and Australia. It was first used in the early 19th century in the East End of London; hence its alternative name, Cockney rhyming slang. In the United States, especially the criminal underworld of the West Coast between 1880 and 1920, rhyming slang has sometimes been known as Australian slang.

Dr. Fu Manchu is a supervillain who was introduced in a series of novels by the English author Sax Rohmer during the first half of the 20th century. The character was also extensively featured in cinema, television, radio, comic strips and comic books for over 90 years and he has also become an archetype of the evil criminal genius and mad scientist, while lending his name to the Fu Manchu mustache.

Nadsat is a fictional register or argot used by the teenage gang members in Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Burgess was a linguist and he used this background to depict his characters as speaking a form of Russian-influenced English. The name comes from the Russian suffix equivalent of "-teen" as in "thirteen". Nadsat was also used in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of the book.

LGBT slang, LGBT speak, or gay slang is a set of slang lexicon used predominantly among LGBT people. It has been used in various languages since the early 20th century as a means by which members of the LGBT community identify themselves and speak in code with brevity and speed to others.

<i>The Belles of St. Trinians</i> 1954 British comedy film by Frank Launder

The Belles of St Trinian's is a British comedy film set in the fictional St Trinian's school, released in 1954. It and its sequels were inspired by British cartoonist Ronald Searle. Directed by Frank Launder and written by Launder and Sidney Gilliat, it was the first of a series of four films.

<i>Blue Murder at St Trinians</i> 1957 British film

Blue Murder at St Trinian's is a 1957 British comedy film set in the fictional St Trinian's School. Directed by Frank Launder and written by him and Sidney Gilliat, it was the second of the series of four films. The film stars Terry-Thomas, George Cole, Joyce Grenfell, Lionel Jeffries and Richard Wattis.

Wide boy is a British term for a man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is synonymous with spiv. The word "wide" used in this sense means wide-awake or sharp-witted. It applies to the wide-lapelled suits and broad ties, commonly called ' Kipper's ', after the similarly broad fish, which were worn. The term was used in a 1936 autobiography to describe criminal culture during the First World War. Newspapers of the late 1940s and 1950s often use both terms in the same article about the same person when dealing with ticket touts, fraudsters, and black market traders. It has become more generally used to describe a dishonest trader or a petty criminal who works by guile rather than force.

Henry Cuthbert Edwards aka Flash Harry is a fictional character from the St. Trinian's series of films who first appears in the 1954 The Belles of St Trinian's and who may also be a spiv. The term refers to "an ostentatious, loudly-dressed, and usually ill-mannered man". The best-known portrayer is George Cole in the 1950s–1960s films.

<i>Hawkshaw the Detective</i> Comic strip character

Hawkshaw the Detective was a comic strip character featured in an eponymous cartoon serial by Gus Mager from February 23, 1913, to November 12, 1922, and again from December 13, 1931, to 1952. The name of Mager's character was derived from the common American slang of the time, in which a hawkshaw meant a detective—that slang itself derived from playwright Tom Taylor's use of the name for the detective in his 1863 stage play The Ticket of Leave Man.

Private Walker

Private Joe Walker is a fictional black market spiv and Home Guard platoon member, first portrayed by actor James Beck in the BBC television sitcom Dad's Army. In real life, Beck died suddenly on 6 August 1973. The character of Walker was one of the seven primary characters in the show. Following his character's departure the series attempted to replace him with a war reporter called Private Cheeseman, who had made a previous cameo appearance in the episode "My British Buddy".

Michael Ripper British actor

Michael George Ripper was an English character actor born in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

Larry Martyn British film and television actor (1934-1994)

Lawrence Martyn was a British film and television actor known for his comedy performances.

Come Dancing (song) 1982 single by The Kinks

"Come Dancing" is a 1982 song written by Ray Davies and performed by British rock group the Kinks on their 1983 album State of Confusion. The song was inspired by Davies' memories of his older sister, Rene, who died of a heart attack while dancing at a dance hall. The lyrics, sung from the perspective of an "East End barrow boy," are about the boy's sister going on dates at a local Palais dance hall.

<i>The Gilt Kid</i>

The Gilt Kid is the debut novel by British author James Curtis published in 1936. It is a crime thriller set in 1930s London but also deals with working-class themes in a Social realism style.

<i>They Drive by Night</i> (novel)

They Drive By Night is the second novel by British author James Curtis published in 1938. It is a crime thriller set in 1930s London and the North of England dealing with working-class themes in a Social realism style.

<i>A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English</i>

A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English is a dictionary of slang originally compiled by the noted lexicographer of the English language, Eric Partridge. The first edition was published in 1937 and seven editions were eventually published by Partridge. An eighth edition was published in 1984, after Partridge's death, by editor Paul Beale; in 1990 Beale published an abridged version, Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

Bloke is a slang term for a common man in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Cornhole is a sexual slang vulgarism for the anus. The term came into use in the 1910s in the United States. Its verb form, to cornhole, which came into use in the '30s, means 'to have anal sex'.

Dick is a common English language euphemism for the human penis. It is also used by extension for a variety of slang purposes, generally considered vulgar, including: as a verb to describe sexual activity; and as a pejorative term for individuals who are considered to be rude, abrasive, inconsiderate, or otherwise contemptible. In this context, it can be used interchangeably with jerk, and can also be used as a verb to describe rude or deceitful actions. Variants include dickhead, which literally refers to the glans. The offensiveness of the word dick is complicated by the continued use of the word in inoffensive contexts, including as both a given name and a surname, the popular British dessert spotted dick, the classic novel Moby-Dick, the Dick and Jane series of children's books, and the American retailer Dick's Sporting Goods. Uses such as these have provided a basis for comedy writers to exploit this juxtaposition through double entendre.

Demob suit civilian clothes given to a man upon his demobilisation from the British armed forces at the end of WWII

A demob suit was a suit of civilian clothes given to a man on his demobilisation from the British armed forces at the end of the Second World War. Although the suits were of good quality, the need to clothe millions of demobilising servicemen led to supply problems that caused some men to receive suits that were not of the correct size. As a result, the demob suit became a common subject in British comedy in the post-war years.


  1. Peter Wollen (2002) Paris Hollywood - Writings on Film pp1856
  2. Partridge, E., (1966) Origins: A short etymological dictionary of modern English 4th ed
  3. Axel Bracey (1934) School for Scoundrels (Rich and Cowan)
  4. Oxford English Dictionary
  5. 1 2 World Wide Words Richard English: Spiv
  6. e.g. Daily Mirror 30 August 1914." “Spiv” Bagster, ....went to prison yesterday for three months as a "rogue and vagabond.” ... Bagster was detected in the yard of Victoria Station offering imitation jewellery or sale as genuine."
  7. Green, Jonathon. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang
  8. The Spectator 4 December 1982 Jeffery Bernard "Low Life"
  9. Roodhouse, Mark (2010-09-28). "City Bankers - Spivs or Profiteers?". History & Policy.
  10. Savage, Jon. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. New York: Viking, 2007. ISBN   978-0-670-03837-4
  11. The Independent 19 April 1995 Obituaries: Arthur English
  12. S. Chibnall & R. Murphy (eds) (1999) British Crime Cinema Routledge ISBN   0-415-16869-4
  13. "www.screenonline.org.uk". www.screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-15.
  14. Henke, James (May 17, 1979). "Joe Jackson Puts His Best Shoe Forward". Rolling Stone . Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. (291): 22.