AskDefine | Define spiv

Dictionary Definition

spiv n : a person without employment who makes money by various dubious schemes; goes about smartly dressed and having a good time

User Contributed Dictionary




Perhaps from spiff, spiffy. 'Spiv' was the nickname of Henry Bagster, a Londoner arrested a number of times in 1904-6 for activities as described below, and may have been the archetype.


  1. In the context of "UK|dated": a smartly dressed person who trades in illicit, black-market or stolen goods
  2. In the context of "UK|dated": a flashy con artist, often homeless, who lives by his wits
  3. In the context of "UK|dated": in Scotland Yard usage, a low and common thief
  4. In the context of "UK|dated": a slacker; one who shirks responsibility

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Extensive Definition

Spiv is a British word for a particular kind of petty criminal, who deals in stolen goods or fraudulent sales, especially a well-dressed man offering goods at bargain prices. The goods are generally not what they seem or have been obtained illegally. It was particularly used during the Second World War and in the Post-War rationing period for black-market dealers.


According to Eric Partridge the word was originally race-course slang, but had become widely accepted by 1950. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that "Spiv" was the nick-name of Henry Bagster, a small-time crook in the 1900's who was frequently arrested for illegal street trading and confidence tricks, and he may be the archetype. Spiv may come from spiffy meaning smartly dressed, or from spiff, being a bonus for salespeople (especially drapers but later car salesmen etc) for managing to sell excess or out of fashion stock. The seller might offer a discount, by splitting his commission with the customer. A seller of stolen goods could give this explanation for a bargain price.

Fictional spivs

Immediately after the Second World War, the comedian Arthur English had a successful career appearing as a spiv with a pencil moustache, wide-brimmed hat, light-coloured suit and a bright patterned tie, and this set the popular image. This image of the spiv was used for the character Flash Harry in the film The Belles of St Trinian's and subsequent St Trinian's films, and the character Private Joe Walker in the TV series Dad's Army.
A series of British crime films produced about 1945 to 1950 (whilst rationing was still in effect) dealt with the black market and related underworld, and have been termed spiv movies or the spiv cycle by critics.
Examples are Brighton Rock and Night and the City in which the spiv is a main character. Other crime films which have been quoted as part of the spiv cycle (though not always featuring a spiv character, just criminal dealings) are: They Made Me a Fugitive; It Always Rains on Sunday; Odd Man Out; The Third Man.
A (possibly unique) example of a spiv in children's fiction is Johnny Sharp in the 1948 novel The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis.
According to Peter Wollen, writing about spiv films, "The crucial difference between the spiv - a flashy black-marketeer - and the classic gangster was the degree of sympathy the spiv attracted among audiences weary of wartime and post-war shortages: black-marketeers may have been outside the law, but they performed an obvious public service."


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