There have probably been pickpockets for as long as there have been pockets. And since crime and slang go together like peanut butter and chocolate, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of terms for this delicate but illegal art. Please enjoy the following terms, all recorded in the wonderful Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS), which has recently been released in a digital edition. Please enjoy these old-timey terms while keeping an eye peeled for their sneaky referents.
This term, around since the 1800s, might be the most logical. Since a locksmith is good with locks, a finger-smith is good with fingers, especially the kind of nimble digits that covertly snatch an iPhone or other pocket pal.
Here’s another hand-centric term, accentuating the primary tool of the pickpocket’s trade. It’s been around since the late 1700s, and a 1795 example from Sporting Mag is a righteous and florid denouncement of “A most daring gang of villains, denominated the genteel knucklers, who [...] supported themselves in extravagance and debauchery by the most atrocious acts of plunder.”
While an abstractionist can be the kind of artist whose work makes you rub your chin or scratch your head, it can also be a pickpocket, due to the sense of abstracting as taking away a meaning. I wonder if a painterly type of abstractionist has ever been down on their luck and became the dastardly type.
Since the 1600s, slip-gibbet—a word that sounds like it could have been coined by Lewis Carroll—has been a pickpocket or other sort of thief. Why slip-gibbet? Because they slip the gibbet, of course—meaning they avoid the gallows.
5. AND 6. WORKER AND WORKMAN
While every pickpocket is working, this term has a specific sense when abstractionists are working in pairs: the worker is the one who actually grabs the wallet. In 1914, Walter Sickert wrote of a finger-smith: “All these he would carry with him so that he, the ‘worker,’ or the ‘tool,’ might have his mind and his hands freed for the masterstroke.” A worker can also be called a workman, as well as the more specific following term.
7. LEATHER WORKER
This term alludes to the usual composition of a wallet, a slip-gibbet’s object of desire.
8. ST. GILES BUZZMAN
Green gives helpful background to this term, which is inspired by “the criminal slum, in the parish of St. Giles, at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, London, destroyed when New Oxford Street was cut through in 1847.” A buzzman buzzes (picks a peck of pocket)—much as a scofflaw from the following entry whizzes. Another related term is St. Giles’ Greek, a fantastic euphemism for slang, especially the criminal sort.
9., 10., 11., AND 12. WHIZ BOY, WHIZ MAN, WHIZ MOB, AND WHIZZER
Whiz Boy sounds like the worst teenage sidekick ever, but it would be a better name for a teen villain, because whiz (or whizz) boy is a part of a family of pickpocketological terms. You can also be a whiz artist, whiz man, or part of a whiz mob, if you pickpocket via gang. All those dastardly hoodlums can be described as on the whiz when working. This group of terms turned up in the early part of the 1900s.
13. AND 14. NIPPER AND BUNG-NIPPER
While nipping has several meanings, in this case, it’s the kind you don’t want to experience in a crowded subway car. Or anywhere, really. GDoS and the OED record an example from 1585: “Fleetwood in Ellis Original Letters 1st Ser. II. 278: He that could take a peece of sylver out of the purse without the noyse of any of the bells, he was adjudged a judiciall Nypper.” You can also be a bung-nipper, which involves an out-of-use sense of bung as a purse or pocket.
This term, which has been around since the early 1800s, would seem to cast aspersions on the intellect of the victim of a bung-nipper. Actually, the real etymology involves the quietness of a wallet, which presumably holds bills but no coins, helping the dummy-hunter greatly.
Given the healthy marriage of crime and slang, how appropriate that the word slang itself has stood for criminal activity once in a while. This term refers to a pickpocket who has an assistant, specifically one who scampers away with the goods after the thief slings them. Sling gave way to slang, thus this term.
The GDoS has no details on the etymology of this term, which appeared in the 1800s, but it just sounds cool. Beware thruffs!