etymologists - what does straw have to do with it?
January 4, 2013 8:42 PM   Subscribe

"Straw man" or "Straw purchase"- What's the origin of this term? It currently refers to firearms purchase by someone legally able to buy, who deliberately diverts guns to people who are unable to legally purchase guns (typically for a fee). It can also describe alcohol sales to adults who deliberately pass the booze or beer on to minors. What does "straw" have to do with it?
posted by citygirl to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Like a scarecrow, a fake man. (Scarecrows being typically made of straw.) Online etymology dictionary
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:46 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

"A straw man" is a fake man, or a scarecrow. In this case, the person buying the gun/alcohol is faking that they are the actual person who will use it.
posted by jacalata at 8:46 PM on January 4, 2013

Not sure about 'straw purchase,' but a straw man is a scarecrow. Used metaphorically, the idea is that you're presenting a caricature (weakened simulation) of your opposition's view. I imagine straw purchase is some extension of this.
posted by charlemangy at 8:48 PM on January 4, 2013

Strawman or strawperson is a legal term from the 19th century (ca. 1880s it would appear from case law) to denote a person who acts as a front or conduit (another term used was "kite") for others in a purchase, usually of real estate -- for instance, someone who could not get a bank loan would use a straw man to buy and mortgage property, or perhaps buy real estate using a straw man to conceal an interest in the property's mineral rights. More recently it can refer to someone taking advantage of e.g. minority preferences or other government subsidies.

The term became important in gun sales when federal regulations began to tighten and straw buyers emerged to circumvent restrictions in the 1980s, so almost a century later.
posted by dhartung at 9:40 PM on January 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yes, "dummy purchaser" is another similar term meaning basically the same thing.

The basic idea of a dummy or straw man/scarecrow is that this is a 'fake' person or stand-in purchasing the item on behalf of the 'real' purchaser. Think of the ventriloquist and dummy--that's the basic idea. The dummy appears to be talking, moving, making decisions, etc but in reality it is the ventriloquist behind the scenes making all the decisions and pulling the strings while the dummy is just a front.

More from wiki here and here.
posted by flug at 9:42 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another rather funky possible source of the phrase from the 19th century:
Man of Straw (A).

A person without capital. It used to be customary for a number of worthless fellows to loiter about our law-courts to become false witness or surety for anyone who would buy their services; their badge was a straw in their shoes.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:27 AM on January 5, 2013

Thanks, all. I knew the straw/scarecrow analogy, but was looking for how this use of the term originated. Appreciate the links provided. It's quite plausible that the term used for a frontman for property purchase segued to mean gun and alcohol purchaser. The false witness usage is interesting, as well. It sounds like a term that would have originated within rural communities that morphed into an urban, modern usage.

Thanks again!
posted by citygirl at 11:30 AM on January 5, 2013

It's quite plausible that the term used for a frontman for property purchase segued to mean gun and alcohol purchaser.

I wouldn't have any doubt on this point. For instance, here is one of the first relevant media uses of the term in Google News (from 1992): "In a straw purchase, the buyer uses a front man with no criminal record to fill out required firearms transaction forms." Here's another from the NYT (same year): "When they cannot find them [otherwise], gangs get guns by trickery and by theft, by bribery and by intimidation. They often pay or force men who are legally entitled to buy guns to buy weapons for them at gun stores or shows. Such a transaction is called a 'straw man' purchase, but girlfriends and other women, often desperate to feed their children or a drug habit, are also used to buy weapons over the counter."

It is now found in many official government documents, such as the US Sentencing Commission interpretation of firearms law (although not in the law itself).

I do not believe it is really related to scarecrows per se, it's just that that's the straw man we usually think of today. Keep in mind that in the 1880s only 1 of 5 Americans lived in a city of even modest size. Many rural images and metaphors permeated the culture, and even industrialized cities were closely tied to agriculture (e.g. Chicago's Stockyards and the slaughterhouses of The Jungle). This wasn't so much a transformative usage as a practical one.

Today, however, your own confusion and curiosity demonstrates how far from those days we've come.
posted by dhartung at 11:55 AM on January 5, 2013

Perhaps to reduce confusion, minors asking adults to buy alcohol for them is also referred to as "shoulder tap. "
posted by redsparkler at 12:02 PM on January 5, 2013

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