Q From I Millinger: I’ve been watching Westerns for years and the term tinhorn is always used to describe people who are new to the West. Where did the term come from?
A My guess is that either you’ve misunderstood the way people were using it, or you were actually thinking of greenhorn (a greenhorn was originally a young ox with newly grown horns; later on it came to mean anyone young or inexperienced). The usual sense of tinhorn, on the other hand, is of someone contemptible, especially a person who is pretending to have money, influence, or ability. Tinhorn has a much more interesting history than greenhorn, so having answered your query let me digress ...
To find the origin of tinhorn we must delve into the murky world of gambling with dice. There was a game in the nineteenth century called grand hazard (nothing to do, however, with the old French and British dice game from which our noun hazard derives and which was the origin of the game of craps). A cruder version of grand hazard was usually given the name chuck-a-luck in North America.
Both games were played with three dice, a chute containing a set of inclined planes that tumbled the dice as they fell, and a flat area on which the dice fell and whose layout determined whether the player had won or not. The difference between grand hazard and chuck-a-luck was that the former’s layout was much more complicated, with possibilities for betting on odds or evens or other combinations (rather like roulette); the chuck-a-luck layout consisted only of six areas numbered from one to six.
Chuck-a-luck was unsophisticated and easy to set up, so it was the province of small-time gamblers on river boats, on street corners, or in low gaming establishments. Though the proper chute was made of leather, those with limited resources used a cruder one made of tin.
The term tinhorn referred to this cheap chute. It’s actually an abbreviation of the fuller phrase tinhorn gambler. This was a term of contempt for these small-time operators of games of chuck-a-luck, whose patrons (tinhorn sports) played for small stakes. It also reflected the common view that all things made of tin were poor imitations of better quality goods (an idea that survives in our derogatory adjective tinny) and was also a pun on the existing sense of tin horn for a cheaply constructed and inharmonious musical instrument.
Tinhorn gamblers tended to make up for the poor quality of their gaming equipment by a dressy appearance and showy demeanour, from which the later sense of the word derives. In truth, they belonged with the keepers of cheap saloons and three-card trick men, down near the bottom of the social pyramid.