I was recently looking up word origins for various types of tricksters, in honor of April Fool's Day. Interestingly, I couldn't find much about the word "shill" other than that its origin was around 1916 and it came from "shillaber" or "shilliber."

Wikipedia notes that "Shillaber as a surname was known in the US during the 19th Century." But then this blog says "not one of the etymological sources I’ve looked at considers the two connected" and offers that it might instead be a Yiddish word.

I am intrigued. Does anyone have more information about the origin of this word?

  • 1
    OED 2nd ed. has [Perh. abbrev. of shillaber.]. Shillaber has [Origin unknown.]. Both have "chiefly North-American". Apr 1, 2012 at 1:49
  • 1
    Given that we have a pretty good historical library of Yiddish publications, if it were a Yiddish word, I would expect that we would know exactly which one and have a written record of it. Apr 2, 2012 at 12:46
  • 3
    Seems to be originally American carny lingo. From 1926: Shillaber — An employee of the circus who rushes up to the kid show ticket box at the psychological moment when the barker concludes his spiel. He and his fellow shillabers purchase tickets and pass inside and the crowd of towners in front of the bally stand are not slow in doing likewise. With which lucid explanation of course we know all about the shillaber. Apr 2, 2012 at 16:31
  • I suspect the origin is lost. No one made any formal effort to document carny terminology back then, and it would only have made it into popular fiction and the like after a decade or so of use within the "industry".
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 26, 2016 at 13:18

9 Answers 9


A Google Books search finds multiple instances of shill in the sense of "accomplice" from Robert Brown, "The Watch," a short story set in an auction in New York City, in The Metropolitan Magazine (April 1911):

The auctioneer passed the cheap glasses into the audience, looking after them fondly and retaining the leatherette case in his hand. "You are now looking at what is without doubt the finest, most beautiful piece of workmanship you have ever held in your hand. Genuine Lemier! You all know what that means! Why, gentlemen and ladies, it's the same as the word 'sterling' stamped on silver, or '18 caret' on gold. It's money in your pocket if you buy this. It's an investment. Every gentleman must have have one. I'm bid dollar only"—he took a bid from one of his "shills" (another name for bid-boosters) in the audience.


A derisive laugh went up from the well-trained shills [at the auction] and Dougherty condescended to smile, for deep down in every man is a fondness for the stable article, for the fine thing that will last a lifetime, not for the showy fashion to be discarded to-morrow.

The shill beside Dougherty handed the watch back to to him at that psychological moment. ...

"You'd start it [the bidding] for a trifle—five dollars, surely?" prodded the auctioneer in a manner so evident that the shills themselves would have blushed at the imposition, were they not as case-hardened to that kind of crime as the auctioneer himself.


Dougherty glanced at the shill opposing his real money with mind money. Let that tall, pasty-faced gink beat him, get that little gem of a jewel of a watch that belonged to Mame—never!

The earliest Google Books match for shillaber, meanwhile is from Word-Lore: The 'Folk' Magazine, volume 1 (1926) [combined snippets]:

In this case an old circus trouper is the speaker, and his remarks are taken seriously, and a circus "glossary" is provided. (This glossary, by the way, includes the following curious item:—

Shillaber—An employee of the circus who rushes up to the kid show ticket box at the psychological moment when the barker concludes his spiel. He and his fellow shillabers purchase tickets and pass inside and the crowd of towners in front of the bally stand are not slow in doing likewise.

With which lucid explanation of course we know all about the shillaber. But the glossary is silent as to barker and spiel).

Earlier than that instance is one from "Grafters Go Glimmering," in the Tonopah (Nevada) Daily Bonanza (May 29, 1920):

Tonopah will have a sane and sensible Fourth of July without the raucous barking of the shillaber of the street carnival. The people of Tonopah expressed themselves in no unqualified tone when they learned what was contemplated for the national holiday week and forthwith sent up such a protest that the American Legion refused to be a party to shielding the fakers and dropped all negotiations. Merchants on Main street refused to sign a petition for use of that thoroughfare and the citizens of Brougher avenue turned a deaf ear to all appeals from the circus crew for consideration.

And from a full-page ad for "Big Auction Lot Sale," in the [Ardmore, Oklahoma] Daily Ardmoreite (May 16, 1920):

GUARANTEE[:] A certified check for $5,000 has been put in the hands of the Mayor of Grandfield as a forfeit to be paid to anyone who will prove that that there are any by-bidders, cappers or shillabers on the grounds. Absolute aution sale and everything above-board.

And earlier still, from W.W. Chapin, "Success: San Francisco's Symbol," in the San Francisco [California] Call (January 1, 1913):

It is the popular thing these days for the smaller cities to adopt what they call a "slogan," slogan being the battle cry of a barbarian, the shibboleth, as it were, of a shillaber. "Watch Bugleville Grow" they cry. "See Squashville Swell," or "Bungtown Booms." Amusing as such war cries are still their uses are like those of the bass drum of the Salvation Army.

Anatoly Libermn, "Extended Forms (Streckformen) in English," in Studies in the History of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, cites The Oxford English Dictionary as having an example of shillaber from 1913:

Another word with stress allegedly falling on the first syllable is shillaber (American slang), of which the OED, The Second Supplement, has only one 1913 example. The lexicographers on the present staff of the dictionary could not have heard it, for it has been dead for almost a century, and only its doublet shill 'decoy or accomplice, especially one posing as an enthusiastic or successful customer to encourage other buyers, gamblers, etc.' is in use. Shill is probably an abbreviation of shillaber (so in the OED), whose origin is said to be unknown. The development from shillaber to shill does not prove that the longer word had initial stress: cf. prof from professor and, conversely, 'burbs from suburbs. Could shillaber be an extended form of Germ. Schieber 'black marketeeer' (*shi-la-ber)?

But unless the OED's instance from 1913 is the item from the January 1, 1913, San Francisco Call, the latter probably antedates the OED's example. In addition to this item, the Chronicling America newspaper database finds two matches from before 1913. From "Blacks May Get Together Next," in the [Grand Forks, North Dakota] Evening Times (September 12, 1910):

"The next big fight for the benefit of the Shillabers will be between Jack Johnson and Sam Langford. Don't overlook this. This match isn't so far away as you may think. I have it straight that Mistah Johnsing isn't doing so well in the theatrical line and I also know hat his financial state isn't any too healthy. ...

And from "Claims Men Are Fakers," in the Los Angeles [California] Herald (February 15, 1908):

Despite the warnings and repeated arrests by the prosecuting attorney, Edward J. Fleming, the barking peddlers of phony jewelry and jejeune junk, with other alleged peace disturbers, including cane-and-ring and similar rack gamblers, continue to ply their graft at Fifth and Main streets, in front of the Beaumont cafe, and also at Fifth and Los Angeles streets.


Frank Perkins, it is alleged, conducted a game in which the players tossed rings at silver money. Simpson and Dwyer are alleged to have been his assistants, known as "shillabers."

Also of interest is an item from 1915 that explicitly connects shillabers and shills. From "Says Summer Park Games Couldn't Be Beaten," in the Chicago [Illinois] Day Book (October 29, 1915):

The noble art of bunco—like tickling a man and picking his pocket—as practiced at Riverview is told by Jacob Le Bosky, attorney for some concessionaries of the park, in an action to investigate a receiver's report.


"The paddle wheels where candy and various other prizes were distributed with ever-r-y turn of the wheel were money makers. Some of them had 'shillabers' or 'shills,' employed by the owner of the concession.

"The 'shill' would buy a paddle and stand in the crowd with the rest. The man operating the wheel knew what numbers the 'shill' had on his paddle, so that when the wheel was turning, by means of a squeeze attached to the machinery, could stop it on a number which gave the prize to the 'shill.'


The term shill in the sense of "accomplice" goes back at least to 1911; and the term shillaber in the same sense goes back at least to 1908. An article published in 1915, when both terms were in active use, explicitly describes them as alternative words used to describe the same thing.

Usage seems to have spread fairly rapidly across the United States. By 1915, instances of shillaber and/or shill had appeared in periodicals in Los Angeles (1908), New York (1911), San Francisco (1913) and Chicago (1915)—but also in Grand Forks, North Dakota (1910).

Unfortunately, none of the early matches for shillaber gives any hint of where the term came from and what earlier word or person (if any) the term is based on. A New England humorist named Benjamin Shillaber had invented a character named Mrs. Partington, who became famous for such remarks as that she never worried about the price of flour because whenever she bought 50 cents worth, it always cost the same—but Shillaber died in 1890, and he seems to have contributed nothing toward the bunco arts.

Leo Rosten, who isn't shy about asserting Yiddish influences on U.S. English speech patterns and vocabulary, makes no claim for an association between shill or shillaber and any Yiddish word. I think this is another case where "origin unknown" continues to be the safest call.


Jonathan Green says in his 2011 Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime:

In the 1940s, the accomplice was known as a shill, although the term (possibly abbreviating the Irish shillelagh, a cudgel — thus he 'cudgels' the victim into participation) was used for anyone who lured the target into any sort of crooked game (as well as into brothels, strip-clubs and other places where they were likely to come out substantially poorer).

Tony Thorne's 2009 Dictionary of Contemporary Slang says:

The origin of the term is unclear; it is said to be based either on a proper name such as Shillibeer or on an archaic dialect form of 'skill'.


The word “shill” is a variant of the Scottish word “sheel”:

SHEEL, v., n. Also sheal(l), sheil(l), shiel; shil(l), schill, shull. [ʃil; em.Sc. (b) ʃɪl] I. v. 1. To shell (peas, grain or flax seeds, etc.), to take off or out of the husk or pod (Sc. 1808 Jam.; Fif., Lth. 1926 Wilson Cent. Scot. 265; Uls. 1929, shill; Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., Fif., Lnk. 1970). Vbl.n. sheelin(g). Phr. like a mill sheelin, at a quick steady pace, with a great delivery, volubly, esp. said of one telling lies (Abd 1950)...(from Dictionary of the Scots Language, online)

Here is a quotation, from the dictionary above, showing how the phrase was used

Ayr. 1887 J. Service Dr Duguid 13: Sandy lee'd like a mill-shillin'.

Thus, it may be reasoned that this voluminous and smooth lying, like a mill-shilling, developed into just “shilling.”

This meaning was probably running alongside the other meaning of “shill/sheel,” to “rook” or trick someone out of their belongings:

  1. To “rook” (a person), win (staked money, marbles, etc.) from (ne.Sc., Dmf. 1970). Lnk. 1877 W. Watson Poems Dedicat.: Forby, it's shill't my pouches bare. (from Dictionary of the Scots Language, online)

Therefore, we have voluminous and smooth lying used to trick people out of their possessions, or a definition very close to that of the more modern “shilling.”

  • This is an interesting argument. Do you have any thoughts on how the form shillaber emerged from shill, if that is the direction that the two terms' evolution took?
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 12, 2021 at 18:03
  • No, I do not. Just from all the information above, I would guess (and I doubt we can get any closer than a guess) . Sorry, I was just being lazy there. While writing the above, I thought, what if it’s a portmanteau, as in shill-aber: “Aberr, v. Also: aber, abarr. [L. aberrāre. In E. use in 17th c.] intr. To go astray; to wander (fig.). — Bell. Boece II. 50 (aberand fra the Cristin faith); 130 (aberrand fra thair common weil). Winȝet II. 52/8 (sal wauer and aberre fra the fayth). Garden Garden 33 (the elements abers not).” (Dictionaries of the Scots Language, online) Maybe? Mar 12, 2021 at 18:19
  • 1
    +1 Your research effort alone deserves an upvote in my opinion, although I remain skeptical about the conclusions you reach.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 12, 2021 at 18:37
  • Thank you. This is the beauty of good research, we may disagree, yet still appreciate the different ways we use to attempt to further knowledge. Mar 12, 2021 at 18:43

I believe it's from the Irish word scil (pronounced shkill), meaning “to shell,” “to husk,” or "to open," but can also mean “to prate, to prattle, to talk incessantly.” Run a scileadh means "to divulge a secret." Definition from Teanglann.ie:

scil, (3) v.t. & i. 1. Shell. (a) Hull, husk. Arbhar, pis, a ~eadh, to shell corn, peas. Pónairí a ~eadh, to string beans. Almóinní a ~eadh, to blanch almonds. Ruacain, oisrí, a ~eadh, to open cockles, oysters. (b) Shed ear, husk or shell. Coirce, cnónna, ag ~eadh, oats, nuts, shelling. Ag ~eadh na bhfaighneog, shedding the pods. (c) Flake off. Clocha, móin, ag ~eadh, stones, turf, flaking. 2. Divulge; prate, prattle. Rún a ~eadh, to let out a secret. Rud a ~eadh le duine, to babble sth. to s.o. ~tú orm, you split on me. Bíonn siad ag ~eadh leo, they chatter away about everything; they talk incessantly.

The phrase scileadh arbhair (meaning "shelling the corn" and roughly pronounced "shilleh a(b)ware") would possibly be the origin of shillaber. Someone also noted above a Scottish Gaelic word of the same root.

Around ~2 million Irish emigrated to the US from 1860-1890, which aligns well with the first public instance of “shill” and “shillaber” in a print publication in the US in 1908 and 1915 respectively.

PS: A lot of Irish words are listed as “origin unknown” in the OED. Just sayin'... Focloir.ie Abair.ie and Teanglann.ie are great online Irish resources with embedded pronunciation audio files.


This is a guess on my part, but I assumed that the notion of "Shill" is based off the currency shillings, as in, a person is bought out to play a crook. From the Wikipedia article on "Shilling":

The shilling is a unit of currency formerly used in the United Kingdom, Australia, and other British Commonwealth countries. The word shilling comes from scilling, an accounting term that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, and from there back to Old Norse, where it means "division".


No Yidish lexeme or collocation of Yidish lexemes comes to mind that could be an immediate or a non-immediate etymon of English shill or English shillaber.


There was a verb "to shill" - now probably obsolete - that fits the actions of the original shillaber:


shill, v.1

Etymology: Old English *sciellan (late West Saxon scyllan ), probably a strong verb = Old High German scellan to resound […] (modern German schall ) loud sound;

intransitive. To resound; to sound loudly.

OE Riming Poem 27 Scyl wæs hearpe, hlude hlynede. (adjective)

c1000 in T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker Anglo-Saxon & Old Eng. Vocab. (1884) I. 215/15 Crepitat, i. resonat, scylþ, cyrmþ, ræscetteþ.

1898 R. Blakeborough Wit N. Riding Yorks. 443 Shill v...3. [Of the wind] To make a noise something between a howl and a whistle.

The difficulty is the link between to old and dialect use, and early 20th century use. "Shill..." does not usefully appear in "The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" by Francis Grose, but then that publication is not exhaustive.

It has been mentioned above that "Carney Language" does not seem to have been well recorded and, to that extent, it could be possible that the word survived in dialect.


shill, This verb seems to have been last used in the 19th century and was then merely a dictionary entry:

1898 R. Blakeborough Wit N. Riding Yorks. 443 Shill v...3. [Of the wind] To make a noise something between a howl and a whistle.

Interestingly, there is a verb "aberr" (now rare)

intransitive. To go astray, diverge from a recognized path. Chiefly figurative and in figurative contexts.

1866 De Bow's Rev. Aug. 177 No one will ever discover the exact truth or the line of rectitude, though we all know when we have departed or aberred far from them.

The combination of

To resound; to sound loudly.

To make a noise something between a howl and a whistle.


Aberr: To go astray, diverge from a recognized path.

Seems to sum up the actions of a shill(aber): Someone who resounds loudly the opinions of someone else in a deceptive manner.


I believe that shillaber comes from the Yiddish word shibboleth by way of North American carny mispronunciation of that word.

Shibboleth is a sign of belonging to an in group and if you think of how a shill operates in an auction situation, they bid up the price but the auctioneer needs to know who is a shill since these assistants come and go. The guy with the shibboleth is the shill.

  • 2
    Given other answers have frowned on a connection with Yiddish, this answer would benefit from something more solid than the author's belief. Apr 4, 2021 at 16:01
  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U. Our site is a bit different from others: we're not a forum for opinions or guesses. Instead, we're looking for detailed, authoritative answers supported by evidence, ideally linked to a published source. You can edit your post to add evidence backing up your claim. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour. :-) Apr 4, 2021 at 21:44

Merriam Webster definition for Shibboleth-

1a : a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning

It is possible that Shibboleth in the sense of “sayings…used by… a party…empty of real meaning” was appropriated by the carnival folk and the b and l were reversed as the etymology of the loanword would not have been understood. Of course it would be hugely ironic if this were true because the correct pronunciation of the hard to pronounce Shibboleth in Yiddish was a test of belonging.

  • 2
    Shibboleth has already been given as an answer and your answer doesn't add anything that presents a stronger case for a link between 'shibboleth' and 'shill'. Mar 10, 2022 at 14:57
  • 1
    The "correct pronunciation of the hard to pronounce Shibboleth" was a couple of thousand years before there was anything called Yiddish. That was a concern of (Biblical) Hebrew - a completely different language. Yiddish has many loanwords from Hebrew it is true, but I don't know whether שיבולת was borrowed into Yiddish or not. If it was, it would have been pronounced something like 'shibowless'. (Various sites give a "Yiddish translation" of Shibboleth, which are abviously borrowings from another European language not directly from Hebrew.)
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 10, 2022 at 17:09

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.