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Double cross

Posted by Colin Sheffield on November 07, 2001

In Reply to: Double cross posted by ESC on July 07, 2000

Double cross began in London during the first half of the eighteenth centuary with a 'thief=taker' called Jonathan Wilde. In the days before a regular police service thief-takers were paid a bounty for criminals delivered to the courts. Wilde got his information mainly through informers, often criminals themselves but protected by Wilde as long as they were of use to him. Wilde kept a book marking these with a cross. If they did not come up with enough or the right imformation or could no longer pay Wilde for his silence, he would add a second cross to thier names and deliver them to the magistrates for trial and most likely a hanging. These unfortunates would know they had been double crossed. Wilde also used blackmail to force people to rob and murder on his behalf. He was eventually betrayed and went to the gallows himself.
: : I noticed double cross in the general list with no origin. It's my understanding that it refers to the Double Cross Committee,
: : or Group, or something like that, a group attached to British intelligence in World War II. Once they cracked the German code, they would wait for German
: : agents to arrive in Britain and give them a choice: stay and feed false information to Berlin or be executed. The term is pretty
: : self-explanatory.

: There's an earlier use of the term:

: DOUBLE CROSS - "Double cross came into use only in about 1870, apparently as an English racing term describing the common practice of winning a race after promising to arrange a 'cross,' to lose it. 'Cross,' for 'a prearranged swindle or fix,' dates back to the early 19th century and was used by Thackeray in 'Vanity Fair' to describe a fixed horse race. The adjective 'double' here is meant in its sense of 'duplicity,' so 'double cross' really means 'dishonesty about dishonesty'; in fact, the earlier expression 'to put on the double double' meant the same as 'double cross.'" From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).