There are two TV ads currently running (December 2009) to which I have different reactions. Both involve famous actors promoting products but although I like one of them, I hate the other. So let’s get the bad one out the way first.
Luke Wilson tries hard to convince me that the AT&T network is better than Verizon’s. This all came about after Verizon launched a very witty ad taking a swipe at poor 3G availability via AT&T. Basically, using a parody of the Apple iPhone’s “There’s an app for that,” they came up with “There’s a map for that” and show folks with phones and a map hovering above their heads, which in turn uses color coding to illustrate the weak coverage areas for 3G.
AT&T had a hissy fit at this and began showing Wilson tossing postcards across a huge floor map of the US to show where AT&T had phone coverage. After covering the map with cards, the implication was that AT&T coverage was fine, thank you very much. But here AT&T were being a little disingenuous because the Verizon criticism was about 3G coverage, NOT general phone coverage. AT&T ignored this aspect, hoping, no doubt, folks would interpret that the two were the same. They are not.
In fact, AT&T tried to sue Verizon for the ad but failed precisely because of this – that the claim was specifically about 3G and not general coverage. Not only that, AT&T is now also the target of a class action suit over alleged “throttling back” of download speeds – the very thing Wilson shills for in the ads! Another slice of Umble pie, anyone?
All this leaves Luke Wilson with, to my mind, a sizable amount of egg splattered over his smug face. And no, this is not an ad hominem attack on Mr. Wilson, just a comment on how he actually does appear pretty smug in the commercials.
Meanwhile, William Shatner continues to rule the shilling roost with his ads for Priceline, where he successfully commands the screen and takes himself none-to-seriously in his over-the-top performances. Shatner, unlike Wilson, comes across as more “smirk” than “smug” and as such doesn’t offend me in the least. At worst, I remain ambivalent to Priceline as a product but actually feel some hostility toward AT&T. I leave the psychology of that to the analysts because this is an etymological column, not a psychiatric.
Using famous people to promote products is not new nor unusual. It’s also unlikely that buyers really believe Wilson uses AT&T because he feels it is the better network, nor that Shatner books his hotels on Priceline. I also don’t give a shit whether Jamie Lee Curtis actually gets bowel movements after eating Activia yogurt. What advertisers really want is to make their brand name memorable through association with a popular personality.
The use of the word shill to describe a person who promotes a product for financial gain rather than for its intrinsic value originates in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. In Jackson and Hellyer’s 1914 A vocabulary of criminal slang, with some examples of common usages, the word shill is defined as “to act in the capacity of a hired criminal.” Note it is used as a verb but it also is a noun.
A decoy or accomplice, esp. one posing as an enthusiastic or successful customer to encourage other buyers, gamblers, etc. (OED, Vol. XV, p.263.)
By 1928, the word had less criminal connotations as noted in the journal American Speech, volume 3; “Shill, to boost for the auctioneer.”
By second half of the century, the idea that famous people could be described as shills appears in, for example, Montreal’s Weekend Magazine (11th Jan. 1975): “Canadian advertisers are confined mainly to hockey players when they’re looking for an athlete to shill for them.”
The actual origin on the word is noted as being obscure. The OED suggests it may be a shortening of the slang word shillaber, which makes an appearance in 1913, just a year before the Jackson and Hellyer definition, but because the origin of shillaber is also obscure, it’s still unsatisfying.
I’m up for speculating on this as being a back-formation from the other meaning of the word shilling:
A former English money of account, from the Norman Conquest of the value of 12d. or 1/20th of a pound sterling. Abbreviated s., formerly also sh., shil.; otherwise denoted by the sign /- after the numeral. No longer in official use after the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971, but still occas. used to denote five new pence. (OED, Vol. XV, p.263.)
The origin of this word is the Old English scilling, which has other variations among Teutonic languages (e.g. Old Frisian and Old Norse skilling) and is thought by some etymologists to come from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kel, which includes among its meanings “ring” or “resound” and “divide”or “cut.” The latter leads to the interpretation of a shilling being derived from pieces of silver or gold.
Incidentally, the US slang word ringer,which appeared around 1890, refers to;
A horse or other competitor fraudulently substituted for another in a race or other sporting activity; one who engages in a fraud of this kind.
Anyway, my thinking on shill as a person who accepts money for promoting a product could derive from the phrase “take the King’s/Queen’s shilling,” or as the OED puts it;
To take the shilling, the King’s or Queen’s shilling: to enlist as a soldier by accepting a shilling from a recruiting officer (a practice now disused). (Op. cit.)
This is first mentioned in Thomas Hearne’s Remarks and collections 1705–12 (ed. C. E. Doble, O.H.S. 1885–89) where he writes, “He did take a shilling, but not with any intent of listing.” Men would “take the shilling” reluctantly, simply as a means of getting cash and not as an expression of undying allegiance to the monarch!
It’s not too much of a stretch to see a back-formation of the word shilling to create the new meaning of a shill, and from there it’s only an inflection away from the verb to shill and shilling as the action. The phrase was certainly around at the beginning of the 20th century, as evidenced by a report in the Scotsman newspaper in March 1901 that said, “A contingent of Volunteer Engineers was sworn in for service in South Africa. Each man was presented… with the King’s shilling.”
And should anyone out there we looking for turning the Word Guy into a syndicated column, I’m happy to shill for whatever product you want to promote. The Word Guy – brought to you by Shamwow!