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What is the origin of “putting someone on”? The phrase means The act of deceiving, teasing or misleading someone, especially for amusement. But where could it have come from?

It is not recent, Mark Twain used it some 150 years ago:

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.

- Mark Twain

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It appears to be a back-formation of the noun put-on meaning deception, from the earlier notion of putting on costumes, disguise:

  • "ruse, deception," 1937, from earlier adjectival meaning "assumed, feigned" (1620s), a figurative extension of the notion of putting on costumes or disguises; from put (v.) + on (adv.). The expression put (someone) on "play a trick on" seems to be a back-formation from the noun.

(Etymonline)

The following extract from the Word Detective appears to agree with the above assumption, but is very skeptical about the fact that Mark Twain ever used the above expression.

  • “To put on” meaning “to feign or pretend” (probably from donning a disguise or costume in order to deceive) dates back to at least the 17th century, well before Twain’s time. But the form in which it was commonly used prior to the 1950s was “to put on [something]” with the “something” being the object of the verbal phrase “put on” (“That voice is put on,” 1806). The earliest written attestation of the form “put someone on,” with the object of the verb being the deceived person, dates only to 1958. So Twain saying “putting us on” is very unlikely, although not absolutely impossible.
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The origin of the attribution of 'putting [someone] on' to Mark Twain

In a Google Books search, the oldest book to attribute the quotation "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it" to Mark Twain is Thomas L. Jackson, Ph.D., Moments of Clarity, volume 3 (2004), which presents it as a disembodied quotation without an identified source (beyond "Mark Twain").

But a number of earlier books identify a different (non-Twain) source: Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle. And happily enough, an actual paper trail to Peter exists. Here is the quoted language in the original context in which it appears in Laurence Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969) [combined snippets]:

During one of my lectures a Latin-American student, Caesare Innocente, said, "Professor Peter, I'm afraid that what I want to know is not answered by all my studying. I don't know whether the world is run by smart men who are, how you Americans say, putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it." Innocente's question summarizes the thoughts and feelings that many have expressed. Social sciences have failed to provide consistent answers.

In short, if we may believe Laurence Peter, the actual source of the apothegm is a student named Caesare Innocente, whom Peter quotes. But as so often happens with appealing quotations, attribution to an unknown student or even to a fairly popular modern author has far less gravitas than attribution to a world historic figure such as Confucius, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or ... Mark Twain. So goodbye Caesare Innocente/Laurence Peter, and hello once again Mr. Clemens!


The origin of 'putting [someone] on'

The expression does not appear in Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960), but it does show up in the supplement of Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, supplemented edition (1967):

put [someone] on To tease, make fun of, or play for a fool; to misrepresent something to; to convince someone that something fake is real. 1965: "A parent ... might ask ... 'Are you putting me on?' or 'pulling my leg'?" N.Y. Times, Dec. 27. One of the most common slang expression to gain currency since c1956. Originally jazz, student, and swinger use.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition 1995) asserts, contrary to Wentworth & Flexner's view, that the expression goes back to the late 1800s:

put someone on v phr by 1896 To fool someone, esp by pretending; tease: The Countess who adores the poet pities him and puts him "on"—Wallace Stevens

The quotation from Wallace Stevens is actually from a journal entry dated February 20, 1901. After watching a play starring Ethel Barrymore, Stevens imagined writing a play called Olivia and sketched out the plot in four acts. Here is the quoted language, with a bit more context:

[Act] II. (A Wood.) Olivia [an American] is driving through a wood near the chateau in company with the Countess or something of something else, a sister of the Duke [at whose chateau Olivia is staying]. ... She explains to Olivia who, light-heartedly agrees that whichever of the three [French suitors, one of them a poet] shall knock a leaf or a flower or something of her shoulder (?) shall have the privilege of at least one rendezvous with her where he may speak for himself. ... The three retire— They are to come up one by one + are not to know the result of each other's contest. The first knocks off the flower; the second also; the poet fails—Olivia jabs and pokes him with her cane while she is holding him off + makes him ridiculous. ... The three separate—the first two in bliss—the poet in consternation.

[Act] III. (A Garden.) (In Act II I may arrange that the rendezvous is made privately with the first two + that the Countess who adores the poet pities him + puts him "on.")

It is by no means clear to me what Stevens means by "Puts him 'on'" in this journal note. The likeliest meaning, however, is something like "encourages him." I see no reason to suppose that Stevens means "teases him." In any event, the relevance of this instance is highly suspect, given that it appeared in a private journal and was not followed by a similar recorded usage for upward of fifty years.

Jonathon Green, Slang Dictionary (2008), however, argues for an even earlier date for "put on" in the sense of tease or deceive:

put on v. ... 2 in senses based on speech. ... (b) {mid-19C+} to tease, to joke with, to deceive for one's own gain.

But as the Word Detective citation in Josh's answer indicates, the form used for "put on" in the pre-1950s era was "put on [something]" not "put [someone] on." Thus for example, from Murder on the Roof: Photoplay Title of The Broadway Murders (1929):

I have a room in Fifty-seventh Street," Molly said, but seeing some incredulity in Babe's face, she added—"near Ninth Avenue."

"I was gonna say! I thought for a minute you was either putting on the Ritz or livin' a life of sin. Fifty-seventh Street, huh? But near Ninth Avenue—what a whale of a difference a few blocks makes! ..."

"Putting on the ritz" means affecting higher style or greater elegance than one is accustomed to or can afford, so it is indeed a form of deception. But the connection between "putting on [something]" in this sense and "putting [someone] on" is not obvious and remains to be established.

The earliest instance of "putting [someone] on" that I've been able to find is from "Jonah Jones," from The Australian Women's Weekly (November 2, 1960):

"A guy walked into the Embers, New York, where we were playing, and said, 'Here's a message for you, Prince Rainier wants you and your group to go over.'

"I thought he was putting me on, so I said, 'Sure, tell him we'll come on right over if he can get the bread together.'

"Then I found out he wasn't kidding."

Jones was an American jazz trumpeter, which lends support to Wentworth & Flexner's notion that "putting [someone] on" originated as "jazz, student, and swinger" slang.

At least in my research results (from Elephind and Google Books), the expression seems to have caught on more broadly around 1963, when multiple instances of the expression pop up in mainstream periodicals and newspapers.

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