According to A Collection of College Words & Customs by Benjamin Homer Hall, written in 1856 I believe, gas is defined as cheating or deceiving someone. Any ideas why that may be?

  • 1
    My guess would be it relates to all gas and gaiters: pompousness, verbosity. Which may have led to the (still current?) colloq. (chiefly U.S.) to give (a person) gas and variants: to subject (a person) to ridicule or abuse; to taunt or tease (a person). It seems to me cheating, deceiving are not that different to taunting, teasing. Those definitions are from OED, btw. Mar 2, 2014 at 22:56
  • @FumbleFingers to give a person gas in the US means to make them flatulent. As in, beans give me gas. I've never heard it used otherwise. So, if there is similar usage, probably not current.
    – David M
    Mar 3, 2014 at 0:25
  • @David: That meaning is the same in BrE, obviously (also sometimes applied to things like fizzy drinks that cause belching). I've not heard (or at least, don't recall) the "tease" sense - but OED doesn't mark it as "archaic" (they don't go down to the level of "slightly dated"). But that's why I included (still current?) before. Even though I don't know it, I still think it sounds "dated". Mar 3, 2014 at 0:53
  • @FumbleFingers It sounds fairly 1930s-50s to my ear.
    – David M
    Mar 3, 2014 at 0:58
  • @David: OED does list "to take gas" separately as U.S. colloq. To be the subject of ridicule or abuse, first recorded 1959. But "to give gas" goes back to 1860 (a couple of decades before "gas = gasoline = petrol"). I only said it sounds "dated" because I assume it's rooted in "gas = hot air = verbosity", and all such figurative usages ("he's a gas-bag", etc.) sound somewhat "Victorian" to me. Mar 3, 2014 at 4:43

3 Answers 3


In "The Oxford Dictionary of Current English" (Clarendon Press 1919), one of the definitions for "gas" is:

empty talk, boasting, humbug, windbag eloquence

"Humbug" isn't defined in the same document, but the current Mirriam Webster dictionary defines it as:

hum·bug noun \ˈhəm-ˌbəg\ : language or behavior that is false or meant to deceive people

: someone or something that is not honest or true

So it appears that's the link: "gas" is "empty talk", associated with "humbug", associated with "intentionally deceptive language".


Etymonline doesn't suggest any such usage. The closest is:

Slang sense of "empty talk" is from 1847; slang meaning "something exciting or excellent" first attested 1953, from earlier hepster slang gasser in the same sense (1944). Gas also meant "fun, a joke" in Anglo-Irish and was used so by Joyce (1914).

Hall's comment on usage appears to be unique and unless he bothered to add an explanation in his own work someone would need to find some corroborating usage before we can determine whether it was accurate.


J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, volume 1 (1994) sees a close connection between two mid-nineteenth-century definitions of gas:

gas v. 1.a. to talk, esp. emptily or volubly; chat; gossip. [Examples (from 1852 forward) omitted.]

b. to speak insincerely to; hoax; kid. [Examples (from 1847 forward) omitted.]

The 1847 example of the "speak insincerely to; hoax; kid" meaning of gas cited by Lighter originally appears in David Wells & Samuel Davis, Sketches of Williams College (1847), quoting a journal supposedly kept by a naive freshman at the college, in which the freshman gradually realizes that a sophomore named Fairspeech has been making him the butt of such crude jokes as throwing a glass of water in his face (and then apologizing for the "mistake") and pulling a chair out from under him as he sat down (and then claiming merely to have wanted to dust it first):

Am now pretty well acquainted. Found that Fairspeech only wanted to "gas" me, which he did pretty effectually.

Lighter's next entry for that definition is from Benjamin Hall, A Collection of College Words and Customs, second edition (1856)—the same work cited by the OP above. In that book, Hall offers the following entry for gas:

GAS. To impose upon another by a consequential address, or by detailing improbable stories or using "great swelling words"; to deceive; to cheat.

[Example:] Found that Fairspeech only wanted to "gas" me, which he did pretty effectually. —Sketches of Williams College, p. 72.

But in the first Edition of Hall, A Collection of College Words and Customs (1851), the definition is less detailed and its source much more clearly relevant to the definition provided:

GAS. To deceive ; to cheat.

[Example:] Found that Fairspeech only wanted to "gas" me, which he did pretty effectually. —Sketches of Williams College, p. 72.

Presumably, between 1851 and 1856, Benjamin Hall found reason to elaborate on the sense of the term as it applied to the case of the Williams College freshman back in 1847, but the only citation he offers in support of the supplemented definition is the same poor student with a glass of water dashed in his face and a chair pulled out from under him as he sat down.

The next independent occurrence of gassing in the relevant sense cited by Lighter is from Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883) in what Twain claims is a letter written on June 9, 1872, by "an ex-thief and ex-vagabond" to "a burglar named Williams, who is serving a nine-year term in a certain State prison, for burglary":

Mr. W--------- friend Charlie if i may call you so: i no you are surprised to get a letter from me, but i hope you won't be mad at my writing to you. i want to tell you my thanks for the way you talked to me when i was in prison — it has led me to try and be a better man; i guess you thought i did not cair for what you said, & at the first go off i didn't, but i noed you was a man who had don big work with good men & want no sucker, nor want gasing & all the boys knod it.

These examples suggest that students (and later others) in the mid-nineteenth century used gassing in the sense of deceiving or cheating for the same reason that they used it in the sense of talking emptily: because gas, like empty or insincere speech, is long on air and short on substance.

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