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Wheeler-Dealer; alternatives

Posted by Bruce Kahl on August 04, 2001

In Reply to: Wheeler-Dealer; alternatives posted by Markitos on August 03, 2001

: : : : Connoting scam or substandard salesmanship?

: : : Maybe both.

: : : wheel and deal
: : : Operate or manipulate for one's own interest, especially in an aggressive or unscrupulous way. For example, Bernie's wheeling and dealing has made him rich but not very popular. This term comes from gambling in the American West, where a wheeler-dealer was a heavy bettor on the roulette wheel and at cards. [Colloquial; c. 1940]
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: : : The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer © 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust
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: : If someone is said to be wheeling and dealing then they involved in setting up important arrangements, often involving money. Big wheel is a phrase use to describe an important person and this may be the basis of the saying. Much more likely however is a custom of the old Billingsgate fish market in London. The fish was wheeled in, prior to the dealing which could only start at a certain pre-determined time.
: : An alternative explanation comes from the US west where a big Wheeler and Dealer was a heavy better at cards and roulette wheels. I prefer the fish market version.

: I would be surprised if either of these convenient explanations turns out to be true--does anyone have an early citation for the phrase, perhaps in a Western history of gambling, or in a lexicography to fishmongering? Wheeling and dealing is such an expressive, compact phrase, implying covering lots of ground in the process of making incremental gains. Sounds American to me, Horatio Algerish, perhaps from early commodities trading or similar occupations?

I agree. A roulette wheel, commodities and stock trading, casino, same same.

The Word Detective talks about the possibility of wheel coming in from "wheedle" meaning to influence or entice by soft words or flattery.

But but we do use a similar term fairly frequently -- "big wheel," which has meant a "big shot" or someone of great importance since the 1940's. The logic of a "big wheel" being in charge harks back to the mechanical metaphor of our economy itself being composed of rich, powerful big wheels (think Bill Gates) and small, insignificant cogs (me and maybe you). Someone who "wheels" is thus acting like a "big wheel" in the great creaking machinery of our social order.


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