Wide boy is a British term for a man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is synonymous with spiv. The word "wide" used in this sense means wide-awake or sharp-witted. The term was used in a 1936 autobiography to describe criminal culture during the First World War. Newspapers of the late 1940s and 1950s often use both terms in the same article about the same person when dealing with ticket touts, fraudsters and black market traders. It has become more generally used to describe a dishonest trader or a petty criminal who works by guile rather than force.
An early use of the term was in the 1933 film "Friday the Thirteenth", where the character played by Max Miller, a loud, quick-witted, Cockney market trader, is heard to say "I'm the widest boy ever put on a pair of shoes!"
The term came to public attention in 1937 with the publication of Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby, a novel about gamblers and hustlers. During World War II such individuals became involved in the black market, but the term only began to appear in newspapers from 1947.
Fictional wheeler-dealer characters such as Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses, Frank Butcher from "EastEnders", Private Walker from Dad's Army, Arthur Daley from Minder, Mike from The Young Ones, Harry Robinson from The Ladykillers, and Flash Harry from the St Trinian's films, all exemplify various wide boy "types".
The Kinks referred to the term in the lyrics to their song "Scum of the Earth" on their 1974 album Preservation: Act 2. This is an early usage of the term in a modern rock song. Kinks songwriter Ray Davies later used the term again in his song "Stand Up Comic".
In Richard Thompson's song "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", on the album of the same name by Richard and Linda Thompson (1974), the lyrics include the line "The wide boys are all spoiling for a fight". When he performs the song live, Thompson often changes it to "big boys".
Ultravox released the song "Wide Boys" on their eponymous first LP in 1977. The 1970s rock band Foghat had a popular song "Wide Boy" on their 1981 Girls to Chat Boys to Bounce album, and Godley and Creme released a single of the same title in 1980 which was to start their careers in video direction. Kevin Mooney, formerly of Adam and the Ants, formed the short-lived band Wide Boy Awake in 1982 who disbanded after a couple of EPs. Nik Kershaw also released a single called "Wide Boy" in 1984, making Top Ten in the UK. Rick Lloyd's song of the same name was sung by Perry Cree for Sue Townsend's musical "The Ghost of Daniel Lambert"; this song was later covered by The Flying Pickets on their album Lost Boys in 1984, and also appeared in the 1977 television play Scum. Marillion (with Fish) released "Heart of Lothian" on the 1985 album Misplaced Childhood, in which the lyrics mention "wide boys, born with hearts of Lothian".
- Oxford English Dictionary accessed 13 Dec 2010
- Benney, M. (1936). Low Company. London: P. Davies
- Robert Westerby (1937). Wide Boys Never Work. London: Arthur Barker
- People, 22 June 1947
- Daily Mirror, 14 October 1947
- The lyrics read "For even wide boys, hoods and spivs / Have got the right to live."
- "Why England boss Bobby Robson is looking for wide boys", Daily Mirror, 6 April 1984, p.30
- "Hey presto, defenders were held and the French wide boys streaked over twice", Daily Telegraph, 3 March 2003
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- London Books: Wide Boys Never Work essay review by Martin Knight, 2008