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I was recently looking up word origins for various types of tricksters, in honor of April Fool's Day. Interestingly, I couldn't find much about the word "shill" other than that its origin was around 1916 and it came from "shillaber" or "shilliber."

Wikipedia notes that "Shillaber as a surname was known in the US during the 19th Century." But then this blog says "not one of the etymological sources I’ve looked at considers the two connected" and offers that it might instead be a Yiddish word.

I am intrigued. Does anyone have more information about the origin of this word?

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OED 2nd ed. has [Perh. abbrev. of shillaber.]. Shillaber has [Origin unknown.]. Both have "chiefly North-American". –  Cerberus Apr 1 '12 at 1:49
    
Given that we have a pretty good historical library of Yiddish publications, if it were a Yiddish word, I would expect that we would know exactly which one and have a written record of it. –  Peter Shor Apr 2 '12 at 12:46
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Seems to be originally American carny lingo. From 1926: Shillaber — An employee of the circus who rushes up to the kid show ticket box at the psychological moment when the barker concludes his spiel. He and his fellow shillabers purchase tickets and pass inside and the crowd of towners in front of the bally stand are not slow in doing likewise. With which lucid explanation of course we know all about the shillaber. –  Peter Shor Apr 2 '12 at 16:31
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1 Answer

Jonathan Green says in his 2011 Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime:

In the 1940s, the accomplice was known as a shill, although the term (possibly abbreviating the Irish shillelagh, a cudgel — thus he 'cudgels' the victim into participation) was used for anyone who lured the target into any sort of crooked game (as well as into brothels, strip-clubs and other places where they were likely to come out substantially poorer).

Tony Thorne's 2009 Dictionary of Contemporary Slang says:

The origin of the term is unclear; it is said to be based either on a proper name such as Shillibeer or on an archaic dialect form of 'skill'.

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