If you’re shilly-shallying on a sale, and you’re not sure whether to shell out your shillings, it sure will help tilt your opinion if you hear another satisfied customer, won’t it? Takes the chill off, helps you warm to the purchase. So, needless to say, there’s some motivation for a seller to get someone to pretend to be a satisfied customer (and perhaps to “sh!” any ill reports). Support begets support, confidence begets confidence. And so we get the shill. (And after you cross the palm with silver and find you’ve been double-crossed, you’ll be feeling cross, and the parallel lines you thought you were on with the shill – ll – turn to perpendicularity: t. Thus does shill become… well, you get the picture.)
There are other names for such fakers, such pied pipers, sheepdogs in the wolves’ pay: fake advocacy organizations and masses of fake Twitter and Facebook supporters (who may also post comments on news stories, dozens of them actually all from the same person) are often called astroturf (because fake grassroots); they may also, on the individual level, be called sock puppets (as with someone creating a fake third-party identity to voice support for themself or respond to criticism of them). These kinds of things are altogether too common on websites that allow review of and comment on commercial entities.
There are also slightly less dodgy (and more legal) versions of shills, such as claques, people who are in an audience to start applause and laughter where the performers desire it. Audience members who might otherwise have remained reserved will join with the crowd, and will remember having clapped and laughed, too.
Shill has an interesting taste, I find, that doesn’t necessarily relate to its object. It has the brittle overtones from shell, but also a sound as of a sword unsheathing; the ill ending pulls in shivers from kill and thrill and chill and perhaps spill, and it has a little look of horripilation to go with it. For some reason I also associate it with flaps or slices of flesh or meat, such as wattles and cock’s combs and cold cuts. I don’t know why. But it has a weaker effect in common words such as bill and pill and will.
The word itself is operating under something of a mask. It has no relationship to shillings or shells; it is thought to be a shortened form of shillaber, which referred to one of those people who would, for instance, pose as a stranger to play a cheating gambling game and win so that others would think it winnable. And where does shillaber come from? It happens that there is a family name Shillaber, but not one of the etymological sources I’ve looked at considers the two connected. There are many websites out there that say that it is a Yiddish word, but I have yet to find one that says what the reported Yiddish word shillaber means; moreover, a surprisingly large number of those sites use the exact same phrasing: “It may be an abbreviation of the Yiddish shillaber.”
It would seem that the plurality of information sources on the web is largely a house of mirrors. But we knew that, didn’t we? (See “Nothing to chauffeur a classiomatic” for a great example of this information house of mirrors.) Still, I feel confident that one of my readers – all of whom are, to my knowledge, real people – may have a Yiddish resource ready to hand to supply the needed detail, if it exists. (I know I should have one. I don’t.)
Thanks to my mom for requesting shill – more than a year ago…