"Stoolpigeon" and "stool pigeon" seem to be interchangeable, though the former's definition is usually that of a police informant (synonymous with "stoolie") and the latter a dummy or decoy pigeon.

The Online Etymology Dictionary only has the origin of the stool pigeon (bird) one, so I was wondering if anyone could assist in finding the origin or first occurrence for stoolpigeon?

Doug Harper has now updated the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for stool pigeon with a nice and succinct answer as a result of Hugo's answer.

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    Surely the criminal sense is just an extension of the avian one? Presumably it is originally used jocularly (as in the OED quote), and outgrew its parent. Pinning down 'the first use' doesn't seem helpful even if possible. – TimLymington Jan 11 '12 at 14:20
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    FWIW, "pinning down the first use"—at least in print—is possible more and more often with tools like Google Books (as @Hugo has just skillfully shown) and many of us find it not only helpful, but also fun. – Callithumpian Jan 11 '12 at 17:40
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    I just noticed that Doug Harper at Etymonline (who watches this site) has updated his entry for stool pigeon based on @Hugo's answer. You have successfully helped fix something on the Internet! – Callithumpian Jan 11 '12 at 22:58
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    @Callithumpian -- Oh, wow, I'm so humbled by all this...and it's my first question on this site! :-) – stealthyninja Jan 11 '12 at 23:02
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    @Callithumpian Yes, I sent the antedating directly to Doug Harper. We should definitely do this more often, etymonline.com is such a great resource we should help improve it. Next I'll submit it to the OED. – Hugo Jan 12 '12 at 9:51


Stool pigeon has three meanings:

A decoy bird, or a police informer, or criminal's look-out or decoy.

The first meaning was a decoy bird (1812). This then became a human decoy to trick or deceive others (1821). Finally, after becoming a decoy for the police (1859), it became a straight informer (1868).

Decoy bird and human decoy

I found an antedating earlier than 1830 for the avian decoy stool pigeon, in the 1812 History of Animals: Designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Persons of Both Sexes by famous lexicographer Noah Webster:

In this manner, the decoy or stool pigeon is made to flutter, and a flock of pigeons may be called in their flight from a great distance.

In this manner, the decoy or stool pigeon is made to flutter, and a flock of pigeons may be called in their flight from a great distance.

The second use I found in Google Books is from a 1821 court report where it is used figuratively, but still as a decoy rather than informant:

 that the black was dressed very decently ; that he sometimes said that he was free ; that Van Ort made use of him as a kind of stool-pigeon, to decoy or persuade other blacks to go to the south with him.

that the black was dressed very decently ; that he sometimes said that he was free ; that Van Ort made use of him as a kind of stool-pigeon, to decoy or persuade other blacks to go to the south with him.

Indeed this popular preacher, having been countenanced and caressed by the Presbyterians, appears to have sold himself to them for a tool, or rather a stool-pigeon to decoy other Methodists into the snare designed to entrap them for the Presbyterian clergy.

Indeed this popular preacher, having been countenanced and caressed by the Presbyterians, appears to have sold himself to them for a tool, or rather a stool-pigeon to decoy other Methodists into the snare designed to entrap them for the Presbyterian clergy.

The next stool-pigeon in 1825 is a human decoy to lure others to Presbyterianism; an 1826 stool-pigeon seems to be a human decoy; 1829 is the literal avian decoy; 1829 is a lord "used by him as a stool-pigeon to betray the unwary".

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s we see a similar pattern with more uses applying to a human decoy to catch or trick others, often a less intelligent individual who didn't realise the scheme, manipulated by criminals, gangsters or politicians.

One 1846 New York assembly report on the establishment of the police mentions:

The infamous and now well known " stool pigeon" system, was discovered.

Acting as stool pigeon was included in the 1855 Revised Code of the District of Columbia as an offence against public policy.

Police informer

Finally, as for the police informer meaning, The Phrase Finder says:

What we do know is that the current meaning of informer came into being in the USA around the middle of the 19th century. The Sheboygan Mercury printed a piece in August 1851 about the prevailing political situation in Italy:

"Everyone fears that his confederate may prove a traitor... and avoided as a Police stool-pigeon and spy."

The most likely explanation of the phrase's origin is that it was coined to describe those police informers who hung around bars (on stools no doubt) in order to pick up underworld gossip but that the name was influenced by the earlier, but as then unamed, hunting decoys.

Here's the source, but I think it still means decoy here, and the informer was a bit later.

How did the meaning transfer from decoy to informer? It seems likely that someone was a decoy for the police and would give the names, or as a decoy to bring people in. For example, from an 1853 court report:

I have used the party in Shelby as a stool-pigeon to bring you here, and having brought you here, I acknowledge upon the record I had no cause of action against my witness, but will litigate the case with you here, now I have got you here...

Also in 1853 we find a stool-pigeon working for the law, but still a decoy:

After the lapse of about a year, he hired himself to the District Attorney of the United States, in the occupation of what is called a stool pigeon, that is, one who for hire joins and leads villains in crime to betray them to justice; or, as it was described by the counsel for the prosecution, the business of " a rogue set to catch rogues."

A very clear indication of crossover is shown in the 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms:

Crossover definitions

STOOL-PIGEON. A decoy robber, in the pay of the police, who brings his associates into a trap laid for them.

STOOL-PIGEONING. The practice of employing decoys to catch robbers.

(Also note the preceding definitions of stool and stooling for artificial decoy ducks.)

In an 1868 House of Representatives report on election frauds in New York, we can find it used as a straight informer:

715. Q. Give us the names.
A. I do not want to have anything to do with giving names; it would be an injury to me in my district if I did such a thing; not only in my district but through the city.
716. Q. In what way?
A. I do not want to be a stool-pigeon for anybody.
717. Q. Would it create an influence against you that would be injurious?
A. Yes, sir; injurious to me and injurious to the party; they would put me down as an informer. I know numbers of men in the 7th ward who always voted the democratic ticket, and who now, through me, vote the republican ticket. I would be regarded as a " sucker," as they call it, vulgarly.

The above stool pigeon and stool-pigeon are used more or less interchangeably for the similar meanings. The first stoolpigeon I found is much later, in the index of an 1872 book on Americanisms, but then uses stool-pigeon inside. The next is not until 1893:

The deputy sheriff -- an anti-Vanderpoint man -- was aroused by the blast given him for letting a certain horsethief escape. It was the first time in his life that he had been branded (in print) as a "shyster," "an impecunious fraud, "a lazy stoolpigeon," and other such epithets.

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    +1 Couldn't have said it better myself, though I certainly tried. You beat me by six minutes! Great answer. – Callithumpian Jan 11 '12 at 17:26
  • So, with respect to the OPs questino, you're not distinguishing the meaning of the three spelling variants 'stool pigeon', 'stool-pigeon', and 'stoolpigeon'? – Mitch Jan 11 '12 at 17:44
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    @Mitch No, I don't think spelling in itself is particularly important when it comes to older meanings, where it's somewhat down to style. I searched Google Books for stool-pigeon OR stoolpigeon OR "stool pigeon" and as we can see, they're fairly interchangeable even with the same meanings. (How you might define or punctuate it now is another question.) I just noticed I hadn't found one stoolpigeon. I'll edit and add one. – Hugo Jan 11 '12 at 20:15
  • @Hugo -- The sheer amount of effort you put into this...I sincerely hope Barry England won't think too poorly of me for re-allocating your answer as the answer. Thank you! :-) – stealthyninja Jan 11 '12 at 22:12

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for stool-pigeon is dated 1830 and comes from the ‘Workingman’s Gazette’ published in Woodstock, Vermont. It reads:

A wag who keeps an oyster cellar in Newark advertises, among other things, ‘wildbirds domesticated and stool pigeons trained to catch voters for the next Presidency—warranted to suit either party.

The next is from Washington Irving in 1836:

One man . . . was used like a ‘stool pigeon’, to decoy the others.

  • The OP drew a distinction between 'stoolpigeon' and 'stool pigeon' and asks about 'the former. Yet your answer talks about the second and another variety 'stool-pigeon'. Can you explain which thing (of those three) you're really answering, and the relation to the other two? (as it is, you answer is relevant but as an aside, not directly answering the OP, despite his accepting your answer). – Mitch Jan 11 '12 at 14:14
  • @Mitch: The evidence from the OED is not entirely clear to me. The 1830 citation may be the first recorded instance of the figurative use, but I'm not sure. I was hoping it might be more obvious to someone who knows the United States better than I do. I included the 1836 citatation as well in case that better matched what the OP was looking for. – Barrie England Jan 11 '12 at 15:00

Evidence may some day appear to contradict what now suggests that the first published use of 'stool pigeon' (open, closed or hyphenated), was in the US popular press, where it appears as a metaphor for a political decoy or patsy ('patsy' in the sense of a "person who is easily taken advantage of", OED):

Behold the ludicrous farce of making a stool pigeon of the "beastly" representative of a petty Barbary power, for the purpose of decoying Congress into the grant of money which they had already twice refused.

The Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 Sep 1806, p 2 (paywalled link, italics mine).

Again in 1808, the 'stool pigeon' metaphor is used in a political context:

He is intended as a stool pigeon before, and a tool after the election; and I believe the Germans in general know it.

Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 07 Sep 1808, p 3 (paywalled link, italics mine).

It is only after these earlier appearances that the perhaps fanciful story of the stuffed bird with mechanically animated wings, set on a stool to lure other birds, appears in Webster's Elements of Useful Knowledge.

I found mention of 'stool pigeon' in the sense of "gamblers' assistant, shill or decoy" as early as 1816:

There is another innkeeper in the city whose house is the great resort of the club. He acts as procurer of stool pigeon to a faro bank, that is kept in the city, and divides the spoil with four other sharpers of the black leg tribe, who deal the cards out of a slipling box.

The Gleaner (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), 17 May 1816, p 2 (paywalled link, italics mine).

References to 'stool pigeon' in this sense are interspersed among references in the sense of 'political patsy or decoy' after 1816.

Searches for 'decoy pigeon', 'stall pigeon' and 'stale pigeon', as suggested by OED's speculative but appealing etymology from 'stale' (a decoy bird, living or stuffed) or 'stall' (a decoy bird), were not productive.

'Decoy pigeon' appears as early as 1818 (US), but then as a political metaphor, perhaps derived from the earlier uses of 'stool pigeon':

...to my certain knowledge this prothonotary's office has been promised to at least ten persons already; these offices are the finest decoy-pigeons in the world....

Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 23 Oct 1818, p 2 (paywalled link, italics mine).

'Stall pigeon' is not attested until 1872 (US), when it describes a gamblers' decoy or shill:

...or submitting to the blandishments of a "stall pigeon" become an "angel" at once, by ascending to the second or thir floor, and seeking fair-play at a faro board, have our minds enlightened and our pocket book depleted at one and the same time?

The Indiana Progress (Indiana, Pennsylvania) 03 Oct 1872, p 2 (paywalled link, italics mine).

'Stale pigeon' is attested in 1577 in OED, but not thereafter. I did not find that collocation in the popular press, although the use of 'stale' alone in the sense of 'decoy bird' is attested through the late 19th century (OED).

Regarding the transition from political patsy, and gamblers' decoy, to 'police informant', the system is fully described in 1839, after earlier condemnatory mentions implicating the police forces of Philadelpha, Boston and New York.

stool pigeon informant Aug 1839

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 24 Aug 1839, p 2 (paywalled link).

stoolpigeon informant

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 21 Sep 1839, p 2 (paywalled link).

stoolpigeon informant

The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 25 Sep 1839, p 2 (paywalled link).

stool pigeon informant described

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 27 Sep 1839, p 2 (paywalled link).

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