Where did the word "cheater" come from?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of the word cheater (as "cheiturs") is from 1330. A cheater was the officer appointed to ensure that property was not left ownerless. Since lands without legal heirs reverted to the king, unprincipled men could steal from landowners, as this quote from 1656 shows: "As a Cheater may pick the purses of innocent people, by showing them something like the Kings broad seal, which was his own forgery."
So the first time "cheater" was used meaning "someone who deceives" referred to corrupt officials who stole people’s property.
Cheaters were also those who played dice, probably because swindlers were commonly found in dice games. In an entry from 1532: "They call theyr worthy arte by a newe found name, callinge themselues Chetors."
William Shakespeare also used the phrase "tame cheater" in 1597 to refer to decoy or fake ducks or other animals.
As early as 1607, the word "cheater" obviously meant swindler or deceiver: "Vnthrifts (Vnthrifts are the unthrifty or prodigal) cheaters and the rest of their faction..were borne downe."
The word use continued after that time. In 1815 the word was lumped together with two others: "It is the resource of cheaters, knaves, and cozeners." Those three words were now synonymous. Knaves were those lacking principles, cozeners were those who defrauded, and cheaters were those who, well, cheated.
More from the Oxford English Dictionary’s full entry:
Pronunciation: /?t?i?t?(r)/ Forms: ME cheitur, ME chetowre, 15 chetor, 15-16 cheatour, 16 cheator, 15- cheater.Etymology: Middle English chetour, aphetic < achetour, eschetour, escheator n.(Show Less)†1.
a. The officer appointed to look after the king’s escheats; an escheator. (The 17th c. quots. show its passage into the later sense.) Obs.
c1330 Pol. Songs (1839) 338 At justices, at shirreves, cheiturs, and chaunceler.c1440 Promp. Parv. 73 Chetowre, confiscator, caducarius.1651 Bp. J. Taylor Restit. in Rule of Holy Living §13 Cheaters of men’s inheritances, unjust judges, etc.1656 W. Gurnall Christian in Armour: 1st Pt. (ed. 2) 201 As a Cheater may pick the purses of innocent people, by showing them something like the Kings broad seal, which was his own forgery.
†b. fig. Obs.
1594 Shakespeare Titus Andronicus v. i. 111, I plaid the cheater for thy fathers hand.1602 Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor i. iii. 62 They shall be Excheckers to me, and Ile be cheaters to them both.1609 Shakespeare Sonnets cli. sig. I4, Then gentle cheater vrge not my amisse, Least guilty of my faults thy sweet selfe proue.
†2. A dishonest gamester, a sharper. Obs.
c1555 Manifest Detection Diceplay sig. Biiii, They call theyr worthy arte by a newe found name, callinge them selues Chetors.1591 J. Florio Second Frutes xii. 169 Milk-maides to daunce, and cheaters to the dice.1637 H. Wotton Let. to Regius Professor, That Pack of Reverend Cheaters, among whom Religion was shuffled like a pack of Cards, and the Dice were set upon us.
3. One who cheats or deals fraudulently; a deceiver; a swindler. (A systematic or habitual cheater is now called a cheat n.1)
1606 T. Dekker Newes from Hell sig. F3, Vnthrifts, Cheaters, and the rest of their Faction‥were borne downe.1615 T. Tomkis Albumazar i. i. sig. Bv, In this Citie..No dwellers are but Cheaters and Cheateez.1663 A. Cowley Ess. in Verse & Prose (1669) 81 It is the nature of Ambition to make men Lyars and Cheaters.1684 J. Bunyan Pilgrim’s Progress 2nd Pt. ii. 134 Hard Texts are Nuts (I will not call them Cheaters).1815 Scott Guy Mannering I. iii. 43 It is the resource of cheaters, knaves, and cozeners.1820 Keats Otho v. v, I was the fool, she was the cheater!1831 T. Carlyle Crit. & Misc. Ess. (1857) II. 307 Reineke was not only the cheater‥but the cheatee.1872 M. Collins Princess Clarice I. v. 74 The cheater and the cheatee (to parody law-jargon) are equally enjoying themselves.1881 R. Jefferies Wood Magic I. vii. 201 What a cheater he is.
†4. tame cheater: ? a decoy duck or other tame animal used as a decoy. Shakespeare plays on other senses, and Scott uses it with allusion to Shakespeare’s application of it to Pistol.
1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 ii. iv. 94 Hees no swaggrer hostesse, a tame cheter yfaith, you may stroke him as gently as a puppy grey-hound.a1640 J. Fletcher et al. Faire Maide of Inne iv. ii, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) sig. Ggggggg/1, You‥will be drawne into the net by this decoy ducke, this tame cheater.1824 Scott Redgauntlet I. iii. 43 Sinking, from ruffling bullies into tame cheaters.
5. pl. Spectacles, eye-glasses. U.S. slang.
1921 P. G. Wodehouse Jill the Reckless ix. 138 A tall guy in tortoiseshell cheaters.1932 D. Runyon Guys & Dolls 35 A little guy who wears horn cheaters.1949 R. Chandler Little Sister ii. 9 The eyes behind the rimless cheaters flashed.19211949
Second edition, 1989; online version November 2010. ; accessed 16 January 2011. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1889.