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Thieves and scoundrels

Jun 19, 2013

Macquarie Dictionary records 'forty' in the sense of 'a thief or scoundrel' and gives the following etymology:

from the Fitzroy Forty, a Melbourne gang of thieves named after Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, in The Arabian Nights' Entertainment

However, our visiting lexicographer, Les Murray, told us that he knew from his Bunyah community in NSW that 'a forty' was a hardened criminal. Les related it to the English system of justice in which only people who had thieved up to an amount of forty pounds were sent to the gallows.

This was an intriguing idea and so we investigated it further.

It seems that in London in the early 1700s the government placed some reliance on bounty hunters, thieves who would turn in other thieves. Jonathan Wild was a well-known 'thief-taker' about whom the story ran that he kept notes on the members of his own gang. If they crossed him once they earned a black mark, if they crossed him again he turned them in and received the payment of forty pounds for sending them to the gallows. In was in the interests of a bounty hunter such as Wild not to turn in a promising thief immediately but only when they had outlived their usefulness to him. It also helped if they had committed a crime of such magnitude that the death penalty would surely follow because the fee to the bounty hunter was paid on securing a conviction. So it was the hardened criminal who had a string of offences against his name who would be worth the forty pounds.  We think that this is how the term 'a forty' arose, and that the link to Ali Baba came later from a rather more respectable side of the community who didn't understand the bounty hunter's trade and terminology.


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