In law school, my friends and I were fond of making legal puns. The concept of escheat proved especially fertile ground; we made up various outlandish stories about having gambling proceeds confiscated by the state (escheating at cards) or spending so much time at one’s government job that one’s spouse has a claim for loss of consortium (escheating on your wife). There was even a joke about the reversion of unclaimed property to the government in the animal kingdom. (It involved an escheetah.)
Imagine my disappointment upon hearing, while listening to a podcast of the old NPR segment “On Words with John Ciardi,” that my friends and I were even less clever than we thought. It turns out that the verb “to cheat” is derived from “escheat.” As Ciardi tells it (and I urge you to listen, as he was a charming etymological storyteller), the escheator was the functionary responsible for tallying the property that had escheated after the owner was convicted of a felony or died intestate without heirs. It was easy for the escheator to skim some of the property for himself simply by failing to include it in the inventory reported to the superior feudal lord or to the Crown. Such a practice was so commonplace that anyone who took something not rightly his was referred to as an escheator, which became “cheater,” from which was formed the verb “to cheat”.
So our lame jokes were even lamer than we knew.
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