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‘Hustler’: How a Scam Artist Became a Diligent Go-Getter

September 21
08:51 2019
  • From the late 1600s to the hit movie with Jennifer Lopez, the hard-working term has straddled the border between legality and illegality


By : Ben Zimmer


The new movie “Hustlers” tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers at a Manhattan strip club who, after the 2008 financial crisis hits, decide to start scamming wealthy men by drugging them and running up their credit cards.


The title is especially apt, because “hustler” is a hard-working word that has straddled the border between legality and illegality for its entire history.


The verb “hustle” comes from the Middle Dutch “hutselen,” meaning “to shake or toss.” When it first entered English in the late 17th century, it was used to refer to shaking coins in a game of chance called “hustle-cap,” to see if they would land on heads or tails when tossed from a hat.


From shaking up coins, “hustle” then came to be used for roughly pushing a person around—what a gang might do when trying to assault or rob someone. In Tobias Smollett ’s picaresque novel of 1751, “The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle,” a character complains that he was “hussled by those rebellious rapscallions.” Members of a pickpocketing gang could be called “hustlers,” as in an 1824 account of a London robbery trial in which a shady character was said to be “known as a hustler.”


When “hustle” and “hustler” crossed the Atlantic into American slang, they were applied to various criminal enterprises, such as thievery and prostitution. But the words also developed more positive connotations, having to do with energetically and ambitiously pursuing one’s goals.

In 1880, for instance, a young man placed an advertisement in the St. Louis Dispatch looking for a job, touting himself as a “thorough worker, well posted, and good hustler.” An 1883 article in the Detroit Free Press about young lawyers in the city explained that to find business one must be a “hustler.” A “hustler” was defined in the article as “a chap who hunts up work, digs it out, yet always maintains his dignity and behaves honorably.”


That tension—between honorable hard work on the one hand and less-than-honorable undertakings on the other—has continued to make “hustler” a peculiarly dichotomous term. In the title role of the 1961 film “The Hustler,” Paul Newman plays the pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson, who engages in small-time hustling—using deceptive techniques to win money from less experienced players—but aspires to graduate to the ranks of high-stakes gamblers. The hustler who skirts the edges of legitimacy is also an iconic figure in rap music, in songs like Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler” and Jay-Z’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle.”


The women at the center of “Hustlers”—mirroring their real-life counterparts depicted in a 2015 New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores”—come up with their own type of hustle as a way to turn the tables on powerful men. The movie, in a sense, reclaims the word “hustler,” since the dancers on which the story is based sometimes worked at the Hustler Club, part of the chain of strip clubs founded by Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine fame.


And as writer-director Lorene Scafaria told the Associated Press, the movie itself is a kind of hustle, since it plays with preconceptions of strippers and their typical cinematic depictions. “That’s the hustle,” Ms. Scafaria said. “Hopefully we’re subverting expectations but subverting them in a way that has some nuance to it.”

Courtesy : Wall Street Journal

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