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A spiv is a man who dresses overly flashy and makes his living from deals of dubious legality.

He has a professional smile, solicitous manner and a good spiel — all of it fake.

He probably has a working-class accent that he has tried, with little success, to conceal. The TV character Del Boy (Derek) Trotter, from the long-running BBC series “Only Fools and Horses,” is an archetypal spiv.

The word dates from the early 1930s but is most associated with the years after the war, when rationing was still in place and there was a flourishing black market in clothing and foodstuffs.

Whatever it was, a spiv would know someone who had some to spare, and could get you anything for a price.

The word is still common but less than it was. Nowadays “wide boy,” though of similar vintage, is often used instead.

A common story is that the word is “VIPs” read backwards, spivs supposedly being the reverse of VIPs. Like most attempts to derive common words from acronyms, whether forwards or backwards, this particularly unconvincing example is baseless.

To “spiv oneself up” is to dress flashily, and the Oxford English Dictionary relates it to the older “spiff up,” to dress up smartly.

A plausible alternative suggestion is that “spiv” comes from a Romany word for sparrow, used as a derogatory term by Gypsies in the same sense as the modern word.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at:


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