palm off / pawn off

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palm off / pawn off

Post by Archived Reply » Tue Apr 20, 2004 1:41 pm

In the posting malapropisms the subject of PALM OFF versus PAWN OFF arose, which is an interesting topic in itself. The relevant portions have been moved to this posting. -- Forum Moderator
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Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Shelley » Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:25 am

How do you tell the difference between a malapropism and a mondegreen? (Sounds like a joke, but there's no punch-line. I really just want to know if there is a clear difference.)

Recently, a colleague wrote ". . . they tried to pawn themselves off as . . . " I mentioned that I thought the expression was ". . . they tried to palm themselves off as . . ." believing it to be a reference to sleight-of-hand magic tricks and the deception thereby. First: was I right? Second: is this a case of malapropism or mondegreenism?

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Tony Farg » Sun Jan 11, 2009 12:38 pm

I'd say:
First, yes
Second, eggcorn

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Shelley » Mon Jan 12, 2009 9:20 pm

Thank you, Tony. Eggcorn it is, then.

Interestingly, in the same conversation, my officemate laughed about mishearing "egging him on" for the "correct" expression "edging him on". Since I'd just disagreed with him about pawning versus palming, I didn't have the guts to disagree again about edging versus egging. I believe the expression is to "egg one on". Why do we say that? Where does it come from? Maybe it really is "edging one on". I think I'll see what I can find out -- first a Wordwizard search . . .

Aha. Egging on is discussed here, and it appears "egging on" and "edging on" were used interchangeably for centuries -- but not any more.

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by russcable » Mon Jan 12, 2009 10:47 pm

I'd say
First: no. When a magician "palms something off", he makes it disappear. When you pawn something, it has little immediate value to you and you try to get someone to take it from you who also values it very little (the pawn shop gives you a fraction of the value). He tried to pawn the baby off to me but I didn't want to watch it either. There's no deception or disappearing going on.
And where does the "as" version come in for the magician? With "pawn", he tried to pawn a brass ring off as gold.

Second: Eggcorn.

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Tony Farg » Tue Jan 13, 2009 5:52 pm

Nope. No matter how hard I try, and despite Russs clear argument, pawn is wrong, just wrong!

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Jan 15, 2009 4:37 am

.. russ the expression is palming .. you have just given a wonderful example of how a misheard/incorrect expression seems to gain veracity because somebody WANTS it to be what they heard and not what it really is .. with the power of the internet you have probably already been quoted a 1 000 times by all kinds of people to support their version .. not to mention how many gooits you have generated .. go for it!!!

WoZ palming off the new expression
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by trolley » Thu Jan 15, 2009 6:15 am

Jump in here, Ken. This one has to be right up your alley.
From Merriam-Webster's Online:

Main Entry: pawn off
Function: transitive verb
Date: 1832
: to get rid of or pass off usually by deception : palm off

Main Entry: palm off
Function: transitive verb
Date: 1822
1 : to dispose of usually by trickery or guile
2 : pass off 2 <palming himself off as a minister — Toni Morrison>

It seems that all of us in the "pawn" camp have been correct for only ten years less than the rest of you. Maybe there's a little difference, as well. When I say pawn off, I mean pawn. To sell something to you and hopefully get the better of the deal. They are actually cubic zirconias but I will try to pawn them off to you as diamonds. I'm not palming them, I'm not hiding them. It's not a "bait and switch". I can see the palm connection, but palm off? That just doesn't work, unless you find yourself alone one night......oops, never mind.

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by trolley » Thu Jan 15, 2009 8:21 am

Wow! Still hunting for the answer to the pawn debate, I come across the follwing definition for pawn in Webster's 1828 Dictionary:

2. To pledge for the fulfillment of a promise; as, to pawn one's word or honor that an agreement shall be fulfilled.

To pawn one's word? As in "I pawn my word, I shall marry that girl" That sounds familiar. Could "upon my word" be the Grandaddy of all eggcorns?

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Jan 16, 2009 10:06 am

John, Until I saw your posting, I was in agreement with Russ. Not that I had ever given the question that much thought before, but I had the same impression that PALM OFF involved dishonesty, whereas PAWN OFF involved just trying to pass off or get rid of something that was unwanted. But most of the sources I checked seemed to be in agreement with your Merriam-Webster Online results, which has the two expression essentially being synonyms.

However, a goodly number of the modern pawn off quotes I found, as well as some (but much fewer) of the palm off quotes, seemed to agree with Russ’ view and my impression. But that’s not forbidden, at least according to Merriam-Western, since they say “to dispose of usually by trickery, guile, or deception.” Well, not forbidden is better than nothing! (<;) However, the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms has both forms ‘always’ stemming from deception, but with the very tiny distinction that palm off means “Pass off by deception, substitute with intent to deceive” whereas pawn off means “dispose of by deception” – bring in the lawyers!

On the other hand, the OED leaves out that all important usually, implying that Merriam-Webster, as well as quite a few other folks, got it wrong. From my wonderings through various sources and archives, it seems that the OED missed the boat on this one, neglecting to leave an opening for a nondeceitful ‘getting rid of,’ which is surprising, especially in light of the fact that they have at their disposal the Oxford English Corpus (with tens of thousands of sources from news, to journals, to blogs, being monitored for spelling, meaning grammar, etc. and with results being stored in this now 2 billion-word electronic depository). I suppose for curmudgeonly prescriptivists (those who believe in following linguistic rules that are set in stone), one could liken the Corpus results to a popularity contest, but that is the descriptivist view (that the rules change according to popular usage), which seems to now be in the ascendancy. And, really, it is hard to argue with the evolution of language, whether you like it or not.

I would also note that my very excellent Pocket Oxford American Thesaurus (2008), which is the first Oxford publication, as far as I can make out, that has used the Oxford English Corpus as its exclusive source. And, incidentally, under PALM OFF it lists: “foist, fob off, get rid of, dispose of, unload.” Interestingly enough, this is in better agreement with Merriam-Webster than it is with the OED, since FOB and FOB OFF always imply deceit, whereas the ‘unload’ and ‘get rid of’ don’t. But there is no qualifier, such as ‘usually’ to say which type is more plentiful.

So, who is ‘right’ on what some would say is just this fine point of deceit (I already concede that the two expressions are ‘mostly’ synonyms) :

1) The hot-off-the-presses 2008 Pocket Oxford American Thesaurus, which says that PALM OFF includes the cases of both deceit and nondecit (in agreement M-W except for the ‘usually’) and which is said to be exclusively based on the Oxford English Corpus. Or,

2) The also hot-on-the-zeroes-and-ones online Oxford English Dictionary, which offers a June, 2008, update, which allows no opening for a nondeceitful meaning. Or,

3) The not-so-hot me, who found in my relatively meager archive searches (although they didn’t seem that meager while I was doing them) that there were plenty of examples in respectable publications of nondeceitful usages.

By the force, power, and enormity of the Corpus, especially in contrast to my puny search efforts, I am going to have to assume that the popularity contest I conducted was flawed – which it well may have been since I relied almost exclusively on news sources, which may have led to a biased view.

And my winner is #1. Why? Because in order to refute a proposition all that is needed is a single counterexample (well, that’s true in the world of mathematics speak, but linguists might argue over how many counterexamples are needed to change a light bulb, that is, constitute a refutation, but what the heck!) and I have found many from reputable sources (see some in the quotes below which I’m sure is only the tip of the iceberg). So, as I see it, the OED can’t be right. And, yes, this is a descriptivist view, as is the whole philosophy of the Corpus. But I do think that the Oxford University Press family – the authors of the OED update and the authors of the Pocket Oxford American Thesaurus – should sit down and have a talk to thrash this weighty question, which is a matter of grave concern to the world economy, peace on earth, and the future of mankind!

In any case here’s what I came up in working from the June, 2008, OED update of the verbs PALM and PAWN::

The original expression was PALM UPON / ON (1679), which later became PAWN UPON (1763), which later became PALM OFF (1822), which later became PAWN OFF (1832). Incidentally, PASS OFF, which also means almost the same thing (but not precisely) first appeared in print in 1681, just two years after palm upon. The pawn and the palm expressions have almost from their beginnings meant the same thing. The OED now defines the relevant senses as synonyms (see below). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms expresses the opinion that pawn off “may have originated as a corruption of palm off” (an eggcorn). But I would say that it looks to me – and I accept the eggcorn idea as likely – as though the original corruption was from palm upon to pawn upon (with an 84-year gestation period), establishing the palm / pawn equivalency, which later transferred to the pawn off being equated with palm off in just and additional 10 years.


PALM verb transitive: Originally, to impose (something) fraudulently on, upon, etc., a person. Now chiefly with off: to pass off by trickery, fraud, or misrepresentation; (originally U.S. Law) to sell or display (the product or property of another) as one's own. [[Note: Merriam-Webster Online says 1) To dispose of usually [[not always]] by trickery or guile. 2) Pass off [give a false identity of character (passed himself off as a minister)]]
<1679 “Thinking you cou'd pawme such stuffe on me.”— The Ambitious Statesman by J. Crowne, IV. page 59>

<1711 “She . .. has made the Country ring with several imaginary Exploits that are palmed upon her.”—The Spectator by J. Addision, No. 117, 4>

<1755 “My lord duke has palmed his lacquey upon us, in lieu of my lawful husband.”—Don Quixote by Cervantes, translation by T. Smollett, II. IV. iv. page 356>

<1822 “Have you not tried to palm off a yesterday's pun?”—Distant Correspondents by C. Lamb in London Magazine, March, page 284/1>

<1851 “As for the narwhale, one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that . . . such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon any intelligent public of schoolboys.”—Moby-Dicl by Melliville, lv. page 295> [[hipogirff = a fabulous creature resembling a griffin but having the body and hind parts of a horse]]

<1880 “It is sufficient that the court is satisfied that there was an intent on the part of the respondent to palm off his goods as the goods of the complainant.”—Federal Reporter (U.S.), 1, page 37>

<1910 “Butchers have palmed off upon their customers imported fresh meat as home-grown.”—Encyclopedia Britannica, I. page 407/1>

<1973 “A claim that Borden attempted to ‘palm off’ its dried soup package as that of Lipton's.”—New York Law Journal, 17 April, page 4/5>

<1990 “My mother's relatives . . . run fruit and vegetable stalls and palm off to the blacks produce that's gone bad.”—My Son’s Story by N. Gordimer, page 131>

<1997 “Eve, struggling with the world's first case of delirium tremens [[the d.t.’s: withdrawal tremors from alcohol addiction]], tries to palm off the apple with a shaky dilatoriness that should have roused instant suspicion in her mate.”—The Independent (London), 19 January>

<2003 “A tip: Don't palm off junk to a charity. If you wouldn't give it a friend or a relative, don't give it to Goodwill . . .”—Christian Science Monitor, 10 March> [[Note: There is no fraud, trickery, or deception involved here (just poor judgment), which in keeping with M-W’s definition, but not that of the OED]]

<2009 “Three men who attempted to palm off a brass brick as gold have landed themselves in custody, . . .”—The Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India), 7 January>
PAWN verb transitive: To pass off by trickery or misrepresentation. = PALM [[see above]] Usually with off, upon [[American Heritage Dictionary: Dispose or get rid of deceptively]]
<1763 “The teller of wonderful or lamentable stories is disagreeable because he endeavours to pawn them upon us for true ones.”—Lectures on Rhetoric & Belles Lettres (1963) by Adam Smith, xxi. page 115>

<1787 “Those qualities which we desire to pawn upon the credulous world.”—Minor, I. xi. page 40>

<1832 “He has sent out his . . . daughters to me—pawned them off upon me.”—Newton Forster by F. Marryat, III. i. page 10> [[It’s not clear to me that there is any deceit here unless, of course, he told the person they were sent to that it was just for a long weekend and it turned out to be permanent]]

<1874 “The ‘Catholic Guardian’ . . . has for some time past pawned off on its gullable readers several communications purporting to be written by a man under the nom de plume of ‘Roscommon,’ from London and elsewhere.”—Thistleton's Illustrated Jolly Giant, 25 July, page 44/2>

<1903 “‘I don't know why I ever brought you here.’.. ‘To pawn me off on your uncle as the wife of Albert Cooper.’”—From Rags to Riches II, in America’s Lost Plays (1940), VIII. page 116>

<1926 . . .it is evident that he [[President Calvin Coolidge]] is trying to pawn off on the country the false and exploded claim of ‘economy’ so frequently made by his administration.”—New York Times, 4 October, page 3>>

<1949 “A spokesman said the pickets were trying ‘to spotlight the shameful army program of segregation which Secretary [[of Defense]] Johnson seeks to pawn off on Negroes as a forward step.’”—Chicago Daily Tribune, 22 December, page 17>

<1956 “Prudence and foresight call for Congress to end . . . the indecision, overrule the special interest pleas of Maryland legislators who are trying to pawn off Friendship [[a existing Baltimore, Maryland, airport]] as a substitute [[for a new Washington, D.C. airport]], and start construction of the Burke Airport now.”–Washington Post and Time Herald, page 10, 11 July>

<1972 “Designers (either women or fellows with a hormone imbalance) even are trying to pawn off female shoulder bags as fashionable re-placement.”— Star-News (Pasadena, California), 5 July>

<1983 “Mama, Where Do Smurfs Come From: What are they trying to pawn off on a Saturday morning audience of 6- to 11- year olds in 1983? The stork?”—Miami Herald (Florida), 17 September>

<1991 “These might be factory seconds, items with tiny flaws, or remnants that manufacturers couldn't pawn off on steady customers.”—Fortune Magazine, 26 August>

<1994 “Clinton's latest try was to pawn off the refugee problem on Haitian's Caribbean neighbors.”—Post Tribune (Indiana),11 July> [[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

<1997 “. . . leaving Democrats scrambling for something they can pawn off as an agenda.”—Washington Post, 16 December>

<2001 “Why should the government pawn off its duties on, of all people, Hollywood studio executives?”– University Wire, 16 November> [[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

<2003 “Dark comedy-mystery . . . centering on an extremely dim but charismatic actor who steals the script of his roommate . . . and pawns it off as his own.”—Newsday (Nexis), 7 September, page D18> [[to pass off: to give a false identity or character to]] [[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

<2005 “In some cases, pet owners pawn off responsibility for caring for their animals to underlings.”— Desert News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 23 January> [[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

<2007 “She has refused clients who try to pawn off their parental duties, such as throwing a child's birthday party, although she will buy presents and cake.”—Washington Post, 25 November> [[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

<2008 “Talk about an assignment a veteran Pro Bowler should pawn off on a younger teammate. Boston Herald, 16 January> [[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

<2008 “. . . he [[California Congressman Adam Schiff on $700 billion dollar bailout]] wants taxpayers to get a share in the companies that get to pawn off their bad loans.”—NPR All Things Considered, 24 September>[Not necessarily involving deceit]]

(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

I should also mention that, although PALM OFF and PAWN OFF share an equal number of Google hits (~ 96,000 each at this time and location), many sources still consider it controversial and even verboten. But it appears to me that the main argument is not that pawn offpalm off when used – it’s that the expression should never be used in the first place – it’s just wrong! But some very respectable folks, for example, those at the Eggcorn Data Base (see below) say the usage is “nearly mainstream,” so that fight is close to being over, as the OED, Pocket Oxford American Thesaurus, and Merriam-Webster, etc. results would also seem to confirm:


PALM OFF / PAWN OFF: As an example of misusage, Elizabeth Janeway sent us this quote from a New York advertisement: “We tell you this not because we are trying to pawn Countess Isserlyn [a cosmetic] off as a bargain.” “Apparently the copywriter.” she adds, “believes that there is an expression ‘to pawn off,’ which means something like ‘to pass off’’ or ‘to palm off.’”

If he or she does so believe, he or she is in error. To pawn something is to give it up temporarily for a loan of money. What is meant here is to palm off, to pass off by deception. [[God hath spoken!]]

COMMON ERRORS IN ENGLISH USAGE (2nd edition, 2008) by Dr. Paul Brians [[retired professor of English at Washington State University]]

PALM OFF / PAWN OFF: Somebody defrauds you by using sleight of hand (literal or figurative) to “palm” the object you wanted and give you something inferior instead. The expression is not “to pawn off,” but “to palm off.”



Chiefly in: pawn off (on)

Classification: English – Nearly mainstream

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It turns out that OED1 and OED2 had an “Error.” label on this usage, but that label has now been removed, presumably in recognition of the fact that, as we say here on the ecdb, the usage is “nearly mainstream”. Nevertheless, Paul Brians [[in his Common Errors in English Usage (2008) – see above]] treats it as a straightforward error. (And Bryan Garner [[in his highly regarded Garner’s Modern Usage (2003)]] doesn’t mention it at all.)

Obviously, “pawn off” still rubs some people the wrong way, but there are others (like me) who don’t even notice it as worthy of comment.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer [[noted linguist & lexicographer]] and Jesse Sheidlower [[noted linguist, lexicographer, editor at the OED, and formerly the Random House Word Maven]] for supplying most of the information above.]

[[go here for the complete discussion.]]

In summary. Looks to me that the situation is still a bit liquidy with a few dyed-in-the-wool stalwarts still shunning pawn off like the plague, although they are clearly fighting a losing battle and their ranks are rapidly growing thin. And I’m guessing that in all probability the OED will at some point fix that small ‘ deceit’ discrepancy I so dearly loved bringing up, especially after my poignant e-mail to them politely pointing out their probable error.

Well, I’ve wrung this one out about as far as I could ring it. So, as Porky Pig so aptly said, “That’s all folks!”

Ken – January 15, 2009

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by Shelley » Tue Jan 20, 2009 4:45 am


PALM verb transitive: Originally, to impose (something) fraudulently on, upon, etc., a person. Now chiefly with off: to pass off by trickery, fraud, or misrepresentation; (originally U.S. Law) to sell or display (the product or property of another) as one's own. [[Note: Merriam-Webster Online says 1) To dispose of usually [[not always]] by trickery or guile. 2) Pass off [give a false identity of character (passed himself off as a minister]]
Ken, sorry it took me so long, but I've been meaning to tell you how much I appreciated this piece of work. You really outdid yourself. Outstanding research. I shared it with my friend at work -- he doesn't get the obsession, but recognized the legal reference right away and was familiar with its use.

Re: palm off / pawn off

Post by SeeMcSee » Mon Jun 15, 2009 12:41 pm

Just because a phrase is used in a newspaper article should not necessarily lend credibility to its use. Journalists, too, can labor under misperceptions and misunderstandings, and their editors as well. I would say either phrase can be used to describe ridding onself of something; however, "palm off" is most appropriate for wanting to slip something to someone "under the radar."

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