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Fall guy

Q From Brandon Gale: In a review by Tom Lutz in the Los Angeles Times for 10 February 2008 of Laton McCartney’s book, The Teapot Dome Scandal, he refers to Senator Albert B Fall of New Mexico: “His 1929 conviction for accepting a bribe resulted in the first prison sentence handed to a U.S. Cabinet member — and the coming of the term ‘fall guy,’ since it was clear to most everyone that a wide conspiracy was afoot and that very few were paying the price.” This immediately set off my finely honed Quinion folk-etymology radar. Could he be right?

A Presumably this is from the book rather than Mr Lutz’s own view of the origin of the phrase. If so, Laton McCartney is the one who has got it wrong, as a glance at a good dictionary would have told him. He may have been misled by the reference works that give Senator Albert Bacon Fall as the source, such as Prison Slang by William K Bentley and James M Corbett of 1992.

The instant and clinching objection to the story is that the term was around before either Fall’s conviction or the scandal itself, which broke in 1922. A book, The Fall Guy by Brand Whitlock, was published in 1912. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from 1906 and Professor Jonathan’s Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang has one from 1904. It’s possible now with better access to digital newspaper archives to take it back further, to a cluster of examples from 1895 onwards in cities in the west of the US, especially Denver.

There are two senses given in dictionaries for fall guy. It means either a person who is easily duped, a victim, or one who takes the blame and punishment for actions or crimes that have been committed by someone else, a scapegoat. The former sense is the one meant in the early examples.

The source is a US underworld slang sense of fall, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century — to be arrested for some crime or to be convicted and imprisoned for it. (It’s equivalent to the roughly contemporary British slang to go down, which originally referred to the steps from the dock at the Old Bailey down to the cells below.) It’s also the origin of taking the fall, but that came along rather later — in the 1920s.

My thanks to Ben Zimmer for correcting the dating of early examples.

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Page created 01 Mar 2008; Last updated 18 Dec 2016