The American Heritage Dictionary entry for this sense of wheeze adds only a [chiefly British] caveat:

wheeze ... [noun]


    1. [chiefly British] A clever scheme.

Collins adds a [slang] caveat:

wheeze [noun]: ...

    1. [slang] [Brit] a trick, idea, or plan (esp in the phrase good wheeze)

But neither these dictionaries nor RHK Webster's, Wiktionary, CED, Lexico nor the Online Etymological Dictionary suggests how the 'scheme' sense evolved from the original 'breathe raspingly' sense.

Those non-paywalled online dictionaries listing the 'scheme' sense always include it as a polyseme, not a homonym. It is possible that the '[informal] a hackneyed joke or anecdote' sense (Collins) is an intermediate, though Lexico says that this is mainly an American usage. But I have found not even a suggestion of how or when the 'scheme' sense, I'd say mainly a dated [CED] UK usage and very informal, with a strong connotation of roguishness, arose.


3 Answers 3


Apart from a few early Australian usages, the term is mainly used in BrE according to GDoS. The term appears to be from late 19th century and appears to have developed out of its original sense of “theatrical gag” as suggested by A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge


  1. a trick or dodge frequently used.

1885 [Aus] Bulletin (Sydney) 14 Feb. 7/4: And we remember on one occasion, when some miscreant cracked this sorry wheeze, a gentleman, whom Melancholy had Marked for Her Own, said it was ‘almost good enough for Punch.’

1890 [UK] Sporting Times 1 Feb. 1/3: [He] retired to the Woods, to see if the Forty Bank Notes were Still Between the Leaves, and Cogitate upon the Success with which his B.C. 55 Wheeze had Worked.

1904 [Aus] Sun. Times (Perth) 13 Mar. 11/3: A schemester who works every wheeze.

1908 [UK] A.N. Lyons Arthur’s 22: That ’ere was a champion wheeze while it lasted.


2000 [UK]  Guardian G2 18 Jan. 14: It is a good wheeze.

  • I'd forgotten to check DoSs. This looks to be fair dinkum. I wonder if the 1885 Bulletin used the 'hackneyed joke' sense ('cracked ...') and this was misread as being a scheme (as, if my guess is correct, GDoS has done)? Jan 21, 2021 at 15:22
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth - A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English dates the above usage from ca.1895 books.google.it/…
    – user 66974
    Jan 21, 2021 at 15:30
  • 1
    I feel dewheezed. Jan 21, 2021 at 15:33
  • I feel as if I should accept the 2 earlier answers as equally valuable (the third equally valuable, but later). Let me think. Jan 22, 2021 at 11:05

The OED gives an earlier date and a more precise origin:

Wheeze (n.) 2. Originally Theatre slang, A joke or comic gag introduced into the performance of a piece by a clown or comedian, esp. a comic phrase or saying introduced repeatedly; hence, (gen. slang or colloquial) a catchphrase constantly repeated; more widely, a trick or dodge frequently used; also, a piece of special information, a ‘tip’.

1864 J. G. Bertram Glimpses Real Life 131 The art of getting up ‘wheezes’, as the clown's jokes are called.

  • I feel as if I should accept the 2 earlier answers as equally valuable (the third equally valuable, but later). Let me think. Jan 22, 2021 at 11:05

OED's first attestation of 'wheeze' in the sense of "a trick or dodge frequently used" (op. cit., partial quote) from Bertram's 1864 Glimpses of real life as seen in the theatrical world and in Bohemia was printed earlier, in the 16 Nov 1861 issue of All the Year Round.

The 'wheeze' had, by 1874, made an appearance in that year's edition of Hotten's The Slang Dictionary, with this definition:

Wheeze, a joke, an anecdote, or dialogue, not strictly connected with a piece that is being played, but introduced by an actor, sometimes with the assistance and for the benefit of others. The dialogues which take place between the songs at ... entertainments are also known as wheezes. The word actually means a new notion as applied to dialogue.

A 'wheeze' entry does not appear in the 1869 edition of Hotten's classic.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.