“Hornswoggle” means to bamboozle, bluff, deceive, delude, dupe, fool, hoodwink, trick, or swindle and is first recorded in the USA in the 1800s.

A character in Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon (1913) bitterly complains, “We’re hornswoggled. We’re backed to a standstill. We’re double-crossed to a fare-you-well.” A few years later, P. G. Wodehouse used it in Little Warrior: “… a man ought not to be held accountable for what he says in the moment when he discovers that he has been cheated, deceived, robbed — in a word, hornswoggled.”

A Dictionary of the Old West suggests that it comes from cow-punching. A steer that has been lassoed around the neck will “hornswoggle,” wag and twist its head around frantically, trying to get free of the rope. A cowboy who lets the animal get away with this is said to have been “hornswoggled.” It’s a good explanation, but there’s no proof of it being right. 

I like the word. It seems to me to describe what it means, but that’s probably because I already know what it means. Someone who’d never heard of it might have a different idea. It is also an old-fashioned word and I can’t imagine any young person of today saying, “Well, I’ll be hornswoggled!” 

Another phrase that also means to deceive or hoodwink is “pull the wool over your eyes.”

One might think that this phrase arose from the wearing of woollen wigs, fashionable for both sexes in the 16th and 17th centuries. But that’s unlikely, since the phrase is first found in America in the 19th century. An example of it in print is from the Gettysburg newspaper The People’s Press, November 1835: “We are glad to find among the leading Van-ites, at least one man, whose conscience will not permit him to ‘go the whole hog’ in pulling the wool over the people’s eyes.”

If you’re into hornswoggling people or pulling the wool over their eyes, you might “grease a palm” to bribe someone from spilling the beans.

This phrase arose in the early 16th century, from the idea of applying grease to a machine to make it run smoothly.

One theory says that it arose in shipbuilding, where skids were used to facilitate getting the huge ships of the day into the water from the shipyards. A web site of Titanic trivia notes that 23 tons of tallow and soft soap were used during the launch process on May 31, 1911.

However, there are earlier quotations from the logging industry. Here is one from the Dubuque Daily Telegraph of October 2, 1901, suggesting that the skids used to move logs are more likely the source of the phrase: “The bears had been causing trouble by eating the tallow used to grease the ‘skids’ forming the roads over which the logs are hauled to the river.”

I wasn’t able to find how greasing the skids became “grease my palm” but the derivation does make sense. I’d like butter, though, please, not plain old lard.

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