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Q From Dawn Govender: I can’t seem to find any information as to how the word vigorish came into use in English or when it took on its present meaning. I would also like to know if it is peculiar to American English or if other English-speaking cultures use the word as well.

A Vigorish is a classic item of current American slang. It can mean either the rate of interest charged on money borrowed from a loan shark or the percentage taken by bookmakers or operators of gambling games from winning bets.

It appears in print quite suddenly early in the twentieth century because of a book, The Apaches of New York. This was a collection of stories about the low life of the big city written by the Chicago-based journalist Alfred Henry Lewis, who had researched and written about corruption in New York politics. He commented in his preface to the book:

These stories are true in name and time and place. None of them in its incident happened as far away as three years ago. They were written to show you how the other half live in New York. I had them direct from the veracious lips of the police. The gangsters themselves contributed sundry details.

The Apaches of New York, by Alfred Henry Lewis, 1912.

Extracts from his book were widely syndicated and serialised during 1911, including this, which contains the first appearance of the word:

When the victim gets up from the table the “bank” under the descriptive of “viggresh” returns his one-tenth of his losings. No one ever leaves a stuss game broke and that final ray of sure sunshine forms indubitably the strong attraction. Stuss licks up with a tongue of fire a round full fifth of all the East side earns, and to “viggresh” should be given the black glory thereof.

Wanatah Mirror (Wanatah, Indiana), 30 Mar 1911.

A couple of things stick out from this: the vigorish here isn’t a charge on the punter, but a sum paid to a loser (contemporary writings say it was to give him car fare home and the price of breakfast); and the word hadn’t yet taken on its modern spelling or pronunciation because it had up to then been transmitted orally. Stuss, by the way, was a simplified version of the card game faro, popular in the cities of the east coast.

The experts think vigorish was borrowed from Yiddish, which may be supported by an alternative name for stuss, Jewish faro. It’s presumed that Yiddish had taken it from the Russian выигрыш (vyigrysh), which means gains or winnings.

The word first appears in its modern spelling in 1913. It was popular for a while but by about 1920 had vanished again, only to reappear in the 1930s in one of its modern senses, the interest on a loan:

When negotiating a loan from a Broadway usurer, one asks how much “vigorish” or interest, will be charged. “How much off the top?” means the same thing, since interest is deducted in advance and thus comes off the top of the bills counted out by the money lender.

Lowell Sun (Lowell, Massachusetts) 15 Feb. 1935.

It is now often abbreviated to the vig and is sometimes figurative:

Two weeks after a hike across hills of heavy scrub long scratches still scab my legs — a kind of vigorish paid for abundant living. You pay as you go.

The American Poetry Review, 1 Jan. 2011.

So far as I can tell, the word hasn’t migrated to other regional Englishes. However, it is known to a small extent from US film and theatre exports, for example in the plot of The Jersey Boys.

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