I can’t remember the first time I heard the word cheat, but I do remember the first time I was caught cheating. In the middle of a test in a seventh-grade history class, faced with a question I couldn’t answer, my eyes landed upon a classmate’s paper. Realizing what I was doing, I returned to my own test, but when the class ended, my teacher confronted me. “This is very serious business,” he said. “Jennifer, did you cheat?” Near tears, I explained that it had been an accident. I hadn’t meant to. And I stopped before I even started! He forgave me, and I kept my eyes to my own work after that—until senior year when I cheated numerous times by writing calculus equations on the back of my calculator (they weren’t the answers, exactly), and later still, by kissing a boy other than my boyfriend (sorry).
"The thing that fascinated me is that the sexual infidelity sense doesn’t come up until the 20th century."
The ways in which we can cheat are numerous and varied, and though I wouldn’t call myself a cheater, it would be lying to say I’ve never cheated. But the word we use today to mean anything from sexual infidelity to duplicity during a game of Scrabble wasn’t always so bad. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for cheat dates from 1377, when it referred to “property which falls to the lord of the fee by way of forfeit, fine, or lapse.” It arose as a shortening of escheat, a word from feudal law stating that property should revert to a lord in the case of a tenant dying without a qualified successor. Neither of those usages makes for a modern-day cheat, but escheat must have been looked upon unfavorably, probably by the tenants in that arrangement. The word developed a clear negative connotation by the 1500s, and its original usages became obsolete.
“Escheat is formed into cheat the same way we get squire from esquire,” explains OED editor Katherine Connor Martin. “The original word here is from feudalism—it's a dry legal way of taking hold of some property—but it goes in a different direction, and begins to have a sense of illegitimacy about it. It starts to mean defraud, deceive. That seems to be the origin of everything that comes after that remains in use.”
It’s a word we use regularly today to convey drama and command attention, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that cheat was used by writers like William Shakespeare in Winter's Tale (“With Dye and drab, I purchas'd this Caparison, and my Reuennew is the silly Cheate. Gallowes, and Knocke, are too powerfull on the Highway”), as well as John Milton (“A false Prophet taken in the ... most dangerous cheat, the cheat of soules”), and John Locke (“'Tis plain cheat and abuse, when I make them [sc. words] stand sometimes for one thing, and sometimes for another”). The word has noun, verb, and adjective forms, expanding beyond frauds, deceptions, impostors, and people who swindle to refer to dice or possibly false dice (chetes), a type of grass that looks like the grain it grows among (cheat), a certain card game (“the point of which is to cheat without detection”), a “second quality” bread (cheat-bread, cheat-loaf), cinematography (cheat shot), a waistcoat from the late 1600s “called Chates, because they are to be seen rich and gaudy before, when all the back part is no such thing,” and the very sort of cheat sheet I used to pass calculus. (The earliest citation for that last item is from 1935, from poet George Granville Barker, and it is appropriately poetic: “Which, sewn upon the cheat-sheet of life, divert from cosmic legerdemain our obvious knowledge: that this face too must die.”)
There’s a notable absence here. “The thing that fascinated me is that the sexual infidelity sense doesn’t come up until the 20th century,” says Martin, though she notes a citation from 1563 in which the sense is uncertain: “Shore's wife was my nyce cheate, The wholye whore, and eke the wyly peate.” The likely implication of that cheate is as a decoy rather than someone lacking in fidelity, because cheat meaning “to be sexually unfaithful to (one's spouse)” doesn’t get its earliest citation until 1934—around the time it also starts to appear in popular song lyrics—as seen in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra (“A woman married a louse that beat her and cheated on her”). Writers including Raymond Chandler (in High Window), Eugene O’Neill (in Iceman Cometh and Hughie), P.G. Wodehouse (in Pearls, Girls, & Monty Bodkin), and Rona Jaffe (in Class Reunion) followed suit.
Now, Martin explains, referencing Oxford’s corpus of contemporary English usage, “The most common subject of the verb to cheat today is husband, followed by wife, and then student. Even though the verb to cheat to mean sexual infidelity seems not to have arisen until the 20th century, it seems to be one of the most common usages.” This Google Books Ngram search of “cheating,” with possible related words thrown in for fun, appears to illustrate that:
The most common object of to cheat is death, Martin says, followed by words like “the system” and then people, customers, workers, the public, investors. (“Cheat death” and “cheat the system” are fixed phrases, which may explain why they come up so often.) “We tend to cheat on wives, tests, taxes, partners, husbands, exams ... and also diets!” she says, “whereas we cheat at cards and golf.” The words drugs and athletes also appear regularly when she references cheat.
There's no cheating in lexicography, though. OED updates happen every quarter, and cheat will eventually have its turn in the dictionary’s ongoing revision project. “The process will involve looking at every single one of these senses, looking at all the databases, seeing what examples can be found, and finding out if the core of the sense is different," says Martin. "Until we’ve done that it’s impossible to predict what will happen. It’s possible that a usage referring to performance enhancing drugs in sports would be added. But based on prior experience, I’d be shocked if there isn’t more to say.”