That Coutts dossier on Nigel Farage said in passing: ‘He is considered by many to be a disingenuous grifter.’ I didn’t quite know what grifter here meant. According to the Telegraph, a podcast host at Spotify called the Duke and Duchess of Sussex ‘grifters’. That does not limit the semantic field. It feels to me like a synonym for chancer, which in an 1889 dictionary of slang was defined as ‘one who attempts anything and is incompetent’.
Stephen Frears’s film The Grifters (1990), not to be recommended to anyone of a nervous disposition, deals with fixing racecourse odds, running confidence tricks, and even faking one’s own death. Get the Grift was the English title given in 2021 to a Brazilian film about confidence tricksters originally called Os Salafrários, a word suggesting scoundrelism.
The OED equates to grift with the American slang to graft, which can mean anything from moll-buzzing (picking women’s pockets) to political corruption. Certainly the noun graft is now an ordinary word for bribery and corruption. But if you asked about a job applicant, ‘Is he a grafter?’ you might be asking whether he was a hard worker. Graft in that sense may derive from a word for digging. A graft is the depth of earth that may be thrown up at once with a spade.
To grave derives from an Old English word meaning ‘to dig’ (as one digs a grave) and also ‘to carve’. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’, he uses the word grave in both senses: ‘Dig the grave and let me lie’ and ‘This be the verse you grave for me’. Here ‘you grave’ is not short for ‘you engrave’. It is the other way: engrave, borrowed from French in the 13th century, was a lengthening of grave. Biblical injunctions against graven images extend the notion of graving to take in sculpting, perhaps by casting if you are making golden calves.