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"Spivs" redirects here. For the 2004 British film, see Spivs (film).
A man dressed as a spiv selling goods "from the back of a lorry" at a 2011 historical re-enactment, complete with look-out watching for the law.

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]


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 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]

Jeffrey Bernard, in his book Low Life, suggests that the term originated as an American police acronym for Suspicious Person Itinerant Vagrant.

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]

Spiv is also a Romany word for a sparrow, implying the person is a petty criminal rather than a serious "villain".[7] He may sell stolen goods, but he didn't steal them originally.

In popular culture[edit]

Spiv cycle films[edit]

A series of British crime films produced about 1945 to 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.[8] 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.[9]

Other appearances[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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. It may be inferred that he has some kind of stolen goods in the case.
  • In the 1970 Steptoe and Son episode Without Prejudice, upon finding out that an estate agent (played by Gerald Flood) established his firm in 1942, Albert is enraged and says, "1942? Why weren't you in the army? Spiv were you? While we were all over there fighting, you were making a packet out of buying up cheap houses". The estate agent points out that he was wounded in North Africa and was invalided out of the army.
  • 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 around that of the spiv, and labeled his own music as "spiv rock".[10] 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.
  • One of the plot lines in the Foyle's War series eight finale episode, "Elise", involves discussions of the pros and cons of spiv activities after WW2 (when spivs provided many products that were otherwise unaffordable or difficult to obtain), their relative merit for police attention compared to violent criminals, a portrayal of racketeer Damian White's violent spiv operation, and a police frame-up of Sam's husband, MP Adam Wainwright, after the he took Glenvil Harris' advice to ask Chief Superintendent Usborne to clean up spiv activity in East Peckham.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peter Wollen (2002) Paris Hollywood - Writings on Film pp185–6
  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. ^ http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-spi3.htm
  7. ^ Green, Jonathon. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang.
  8. ^ S. Chibnall & R. Murphy (eds) (1999) British Crime Cinema Routledge ISBN 0-415-16869-4
  9. ^ "www.screenonline.org.uk". www.screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-15. 
  10. ^ Henke, James (May 17, 1979). "Joe Jackson Puts His Best Shoe Forward". Rolling Stone (Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.) (291): 22. 

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of spiv at Wiktionary