Or in other words, can anyone make clear the etymology and the history behind the coinage of the word trick in the phrase turning tricks?

(Why am I interested you may ask? Well, turning tricks is a phrase with kind of a history for me. For a long time I didn't know what it meant -- in one embarrassing moment for a middle-school kid who once believed that pimp was short for "pimple" -- and for even longer, after I was clued into its sexual meaning, I thought it had to do with more, uh, athletic exploits than the phrase actually implies. You know, sort of a description of things that are sometimes jokingly said to be available in dark bars in Tijuana. So I'm determined to get to the root of this construction once and for all: why are johns also known as tricks, and who coined this very misleading phrase?)

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    I feel your pain. As a boy, I was once asked if I was a virgin. Having only heard the word in connection to the mother of Jesus, I said I was not. The asker, who was a boy my age and had probably recently learned the true meaning himself, took my answer as an opportunity to humiliate me. Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 23:43
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    Any answer would have been an opportunity to humiliate you. That was likely the point of the question. Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 23:22

7 Answers 7


I've got a possible interpretation, for which however, I'm afraid there is actually little hard evidence (but considering the scarcity of etymology studies dealing with prostitution professional vocabulary, this is hardly surprising). However if you connect the dots, it kind of makes sense.

For each dot, in the conjecture below, I will add a confidence level (abbreviated as CL), so that hopefully other contributors might fill the gaps.

Here it goes anyway:

It all comes from... Surprise, surprise.... French argot (slung).

  1. "trique" in popular French is a word for a wooden stick (CL 100%). French donkey's are sometimes motivated using "des coups de trique". It is believed to come from Northern French dialectal "estrique" and is akin to "strike" in English, "streik" in German and so on. Also gives "tricoter" (to knit) in French.
  2. "avoir la trique" or "triquer" means to have an erection (CL 100%).
    Passing the boundary between popular and argotic here.
  3. By extension "triquer" or "trequer" means, for a man to make love, in a careless/bestial way to his partner. (CL 100%). Please refer to a famous novel named "Prostitution" by Pierre Guyotat, easy to find on the web. Just Google for "Guyotat triquer" and you should net a large number of hits.
  4. The verb "triquer" used as "to have sex with a prostitute" was particularly common in the world of French prostitution in the previous century at least (CL 50%). Can't back this from personal experience, I'm afraid ;-).
  5. The idiomatic expression passes in the English language somehow (CL 20%).
  6. A trick in English in the context of prostitution has both the meaning of a customer or the act itself. (CL 100%).
  7. To "turn tricks" is to engage in acts of prostitution with "Johns" or "Tricks".

So you see, this is a possibility but there are a few gaps which I'm not able to fill with certainty.

Since this post was composed (more than one year ago) and as I researched the world of the French Impressionists, I came across additional info concerning the step in which the expression passes into English.
It is a well documented fact that the French industrial revolution was accompanied as everywhere else, by rural exodus, poverty, and an increase in the levels of urban prostitution. It is also possible to show that a proportion of French prostitutes emigrated to the US and various other destinations (even Australia) at that time (end of the 19th Century). Conversely, one can find examples of "petits femmes de Paris" having risen to a certain level of fame and wealth in the US at the time.
In summary, the possibility that the expression passes into English now seems less conjectural to me.

  • @Alain Pannetier I think this might be very well correct Alain! I Googled "triquer + prostitute" in Google Books and found the following in the book, At Odds With Aids: Thinking and Talking About a Virus:
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 22:35
  • @Alain Pannetier "If one looks up triquer in Harrap's French and English Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms (London, 1980), one finds a cross reference to bander [being horny, having an erection]; in English, of course, "a trick" is quick intercourse with a prostitute." Why else would they use "of course" if this etymology was not correct? Outstanding work, Alain! Still, I'm curious about the 1915 reference Robusto mentions, so we may improve your 20% confidence level...
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 22:38
  • @Alain Pannetier And of course, as life is cruel, this Harrap's dictionary is not searchable via Google...
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 22:42
  • @Billare, I just read your entry. I do have this dictionary at home... but I'm currently in a foreign assignment. May be this WE. Yes that seems to close the gaps a bit. I've seen Robusto's quote and he's definitely a reliable member. I too, wondered how triquer can relate to a robbery. Not the slightest idea I'm afraid ! Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 22:53
  • Actually, I do have an idea. "To trick" is "truquer". As in "there's a trick": "il y a un truc". "To rig the elections" : "truquer les élections". "Truquer" is very common in French, and for instance "un truc" means "a thingy", and in Italian it's "il trucco". And the origin seems to be Latin trudicare. We'll have to ask "kiamlaluno" what he thinks... But that seems to be unrelated to "triquer". Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 23:08

Etymonline says "trick" meaning a protitute's client or the act of performing prostitution came from American slang for "robbery":

Meaning "prostitute's client" is first attested 1915; earlier it was U.S. slang for "a robbery" (1865).

In the late 19th and early 20th century in America, prostitutes often teamed up with thugs to rob their patrons. It is possibly this association that caused the commingling and later transfer of meaning.

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    Perhaps there is a relationship with "trick" as in "do the trick" — where trick means "job". It would be interesting to know if there is any relationship or not.
    – user7679
    Commented Apr 22, 2011 at 2:48

Etymonline.com says:

Meaning "prostitute's client" is first attested 1915; earlier it was U.S. slang for "a robbery" (1865).

The Oxford English Dictionary has two relevant definitions, with first citations of 1926 and 1925:

10. a. An instance of the sexual act or any of its variations; usu. spec. a prostitute's session with a client. Esp. to turn a trick, to perform a sexual act with a casual partner, usu. for money. slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.).

b. A casual sexual partner; usu. spec. a prostitute's client. slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.).

I found a citation slightly earlier than 1915.

A 1913 report (plain text) called The social evil in Syracuse: being the report of an investigation of the moral condition of the city by the Syracuse Moral Survey Committee interviewed prostitutes. Page 69 says:

September 11. Girl X201 was talked to at the State Fair Grounds and at the X180 hotel. She was born in New York City 26 years ago and has practiced prostitution for seven years. From this practice she has received as high as $150 per week. She has one child. She has been living with a man six years and said, "Well a good pal is worth a whole lot. I have had a hard life. "When he has money I have it — when I have it, it is his. We are good partners and I love him. He makes good money, and I can turn good tricks myself. She is rough and thoroughly degenerate.

One meaning of turn is to perform a service, as defined in this 1833 French and English Dictionary:

TURN [trick, an office good or bad] ... A friendly turn... An ill turn... Good turn... To do one a good turn... I'll do you as good a turn another turn... One good turn deserves another.

But again it links back to the earlier 1865 slang meaning of perform a robbery, do a job and around 1900-1915 it was also used for pulling off any (perhaps sordid or slightly underhand) feat, such as taking advantage in a baseball game (1900),performing sabotage (1906) "“turned a trick” in freezing out the minority holders of stock" (1902), or a politician says he won't "turn tricks for headlines" (headline and intro, 1912). It therefore seems natural that this would have also been used by prostitutes at the time, and appears to have stuck.

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    And while probably not directly a root of this particular 20th century slang, trick was also a sexual act in the 17th century and in Shakespeare: The metaphor belongs to a large group of terms, jape, juggle, play, suggesting the frivolity of fornication.
    – Hugo
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 20:16

It's simply derived from the meaning of 'trick' as 'mischievous or naughty act'. So for a prostitute, 'trick' is synonymous with 'naughty act' or 'job', and 'job' is equated to 'customer'.

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    This sounds quite plausible, if not as interesting a path of deduction as Alain's answer.
    – Lisa
    Commented Aug 3, 2011 at 8:08

It wouldn't surprise me to find that it derived from its use in a vast family of card games, and that that preceded its use as 'a purchased sex act'.


I'm not sure on this, but the earliest literary reference I can find is in the 1947 Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire where Blanche (who it is suggested trades sex for accommodation) says 'I don't know how much longer I can turn the trick'.

Thought this might be of interest to you.


Actually, I have another possibility for the origin of "tricks" for prostitute. Latin, as the parent language to French, Spanish, Italian, etc., has in its vocabulary the word "meretrix", which means prostitute. This, I think, is more than just a coincidence. Notice the last four letters of the word, this can easily be incorporated into slang or a shortened version of the Latin word prostitute. What do y'all think?


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    That's just how Latin makes feminine nouns from verbs - eg dominatrix. The Latin for "cupcake baker" or "kitten rescuer" would end -trix if it referred to a woman. Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:33
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    This theory does have some currency on the Internet, but I can't find any trustworthy etymologies that give references to think it's true. Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 0:24

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