In the United Kingdom, the word spiv is slang for a type of petty criminal who deals in illicit, typically black market, goods. The word was particularly used during the Second World War and in the post-war period when many goods were rationed due to shortages.

According to Peter Wollen, "The crucial difference between the spiv and the classic Hollywood gangster was the degree of sympathy the spiv gained as an intermediary in the transfer of black market goods to ... a grateful mass of consumers."[1]

There are various suggestions about the origin of the word.


The spiv had a characteristic look which has been described as "A duck's arse haircut, Clark Gable moustache, rakish trilby [hat], drape-shape jacket, and loud garish tie ... [which] all represented a deliberate snook cocked at wartime austerity."[2]

The comedian Arthur English had a successful career immediately after the Second World War appearing as a spiv with a pencil moustache, wide-brimmed hat, light-coloured suit and a large bright patterned tie.[3]


The origin of the word is obscure. According to Eric Partridge[4] the word was originally racecourse slang, but had become widely accepted by 1950. It appeared in a paperback crime novel in 1934.[5]

The Oxford English Dictionary states that it may come from:

  • spiffy, meaning smartly dressed;
  • spiff, a bonus for salespeople (especially drapers but later car salesmen etc.) for managing to sell excess or out of fashion stock. The seller might offer a discount, by splitting his commission with the customer. A seller of stolen goods could give this explanation for a bargain price.
  • "Spiv" was the nick-name of Henry 'Spiv' Bagster, a London small-time crook in the 1900s who was frequently arrested for illegal street trading and confidence tricks. National newspapers reported his court appearances in 1903-06.[6][7][8]

Other suggestions have been made, most commonly noting that spiv is also a Romani word for a sparrow, implying the person is a petty criminal rather than a serious "villain"[9] or that it is an American police acronym for Suspicious Person Itinerant Vagrant,[10] though this is an unlikely formation and is probably a backronym.[7]

The word was popularized by Bill Naughton in a September 1945 News Chronicle article, Meet the Spiv.[11]

Spiv cycle films

A series of British crime films produced between 1945 and 1950, during the time that rationing was still in effect, dealt with the black market and related underworld, and have been termed spiv movies or the spiv cycle by critics.[12] Examples are Brighton Rock and Night and the City in which the spiv is a main character. Other crime films which have been quoted as part of the spiv cycle – though not always featuring a spiv character, just criminal dealings – are They Made Me a Fugitive, It Always Rains on Sunday, Odd Man Out, No Way Back, The Third Man and Waterloo Road.[13]

Other appearances

  • John Worby (1937) The other half; the autobiography of a spiv, and its 1939 sequel, Spiv’s progress, both non-fiction books.
  • The image of the spiv was used for the character Flash Harry played by George Cole in the film The Belles of St Trinian's (1954) and subsequent St Trinian's films.
  • The British television series Minder (1979-1994) featured George Cole in the role of Arthur Daley, an aging spiv with an unseen wife ("her indoors"), a used-car business, and a bodyguard (minder) acted by Dennis Waterman.
  • The character Private Joe Walker in the TV series Dad's Army is a spiv.
  • The character Swinburne (played by Bruce Forsyth) in the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks – set in London during the Second World War – has a similar appearance, and offers to sell from a selection of watches which are pinned inside his coat.
  • Another example of a spiv in children's fiction is Johnny Sharp in the novel The Otterbury Incident (1948) by Cecil Day-Lewis.
  • In Agatha Christie's play, The Mousetrap, the mysterious character of Mr. Paravicini is referred to as a spiv. He arrives unexpectedly at Monkswell Manor, a guesthouse that is the setting for the play, with only one small suitcase.
  • In a song from The Kinks' album Muswell Hillbillies (1971), called "Holloway Jail", the narrator is visiting his beloved in that famous London lock-up. He says "she was young and ever so pretty", but "a spiv named Frankie Shine" led her into a life of crime.
  • In The Kinks' rock opera Preservation: Acts 1 & 2 (1973–74), Ray Davies states that his character "Flash", at that point leader of the Government, had started out as a "Second Hand Car Spiv" in the song "Scum of the Earth".
  • English singer-songwriter Joe Jackson based elements of his early public persona on that of the spiv, and labelled his own music as "spiv rock".[14] His use of spiv imagery is particularly evident on the cover of his second album, I'm the Man.
  • Box for One (1949) is a television play about a spiv.
  • In the music video for The Kinks' song "Come Dancing", Ray Davies stars as a spiv.
  • The character of Mike The Cool Person from the TV comedy The Young Ones is a portrayal of a spiv.
  • In the PlayStation game MediEvil 2, the player can buy items from The Spiv.

See also


  1. Peter Wollen (2002) Paris Hollywood - Writings on Film pp1856
  2. Savage, Jon. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. New York: Viking, 2007. ISBN 978-0-670-03837-4
  3. The Independent 19 April 1995 Obituaries: Arthur English
  4. Partridge, E., (1966) Origins: A short etymological dictionary of modern English 4th ed
  5. Axel Bracey (1934) School for Scoundrels (Rich and Cowan)
  6. Oxford English Dictionary
  7. World Wide Words Richard English: Spiv
  8. e.g. Daily Mirror 30 August 1914." “Spiv” Bagster, ....went to prison yesterday for three months as a "rogue and vagabond.” ... Bagster was detected in the yard of Victoria Station offering imitation jewellery or sale as genuine."
  9. Green, Jonathon. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang
  10. The Spectator 4 December 1982 Jeffery Bernard "Low Life"
  11. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/city-bankers-spivs-or-profiteers
  12. S. Chibnall & R. Murphy (eds) (1999) British Crime Cinema Routledge ISBN 0-415-16869-4
  13. "www.screenonline.org.uk". www.screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-15.
  14. Henke, James (May 17, 1979). "Joe Jackson Puts His Best Shoe Forward". Rolling Stone. Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. (291): 22.
  • The dictionary definition of spiv at Wiktionary
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