Where did the term “stool pigeon” come from? What on earth do pigeons have to do with informants?
This disparaging expression for one who “rats” on his henchmen is known to us all. What isn’t as well known is that once stool pigeon was used to designate other types of dishonest people.
This noun phrase is of U.S. origin — underworld slang at first. As used today, it is considered both derogatory and informal.
Interestingly, there originally were actual innocent stool pigeons. These were living birds secured to a stand or perch and serving as decoys to attract other pigeons. Some sources suggest the birds’ eyes were stitched shut, but this cannot be verified.
We don’t always remember that North American pioneers ate mostly wild meat, and pigeons were an important part of their diets.
The perches the birds sat on were referred to as stools and the decoys were known as stool pigeons from at least 1836. Earlier (1825), stool alone was used in this same way.
The journey from decoying birds to decoying people is an easy language leap, and the first use of stool pigeon in reference to humans was in gambling where their purpose was to entice others to play faro. Faro is a card game in which players bet against the cards held by the dealer or banker. Such a stool pigeon was also known as a “hustler.”
The stool pigeon is usually a shady character himself, and often informs on fellow crooks just so he might save his own skin or, perhaps, gain a lighter sentence. These days, stool pigeons could be part of “sting” operations.
Oxford Phrase and Fable defines stool pigeon as, “A police informer; a person acting as a decoy; so named from the original use in wildfowling of a pigeon fixed to a stool as a decoy.”
Stool, as found in this noun phrase, was written stale at first. Shakespeare knew this. In Act IV, Scene 1, of The Tempest (1611), Prospero says, “The Trumpery in my house, go bring it hither,/For stale to catch these thieves.”
Now, read the passage again, this time substituting “decoy” for “stale.”
Stale, itself, is a variant of stall. Stall, in the sense of “‘decoy,” is found as early as 1500. Trumpery (1456) means, “deceit; fraud; trickery.”
The word pigeon is Middle English from Old French. It has been used in English since 1494.
Stool, defined principally as, “Any kind of seat for one person — often a chair of authority as a throne,” is from Old Teutonic and has been found in English since 1750.
Stool, meaning “fecal matter,” is a related word. Originally it was used to refer to “the place where bowel movements occur; a privy” (1597), but it soon began to be used to designate the excrement itself. We can see the relationship. People sit in privies — alone.
As nearly always happens, abbreviated forms arise both from compound words and from phrases. So it is with stool pigeon. Stool (1910) and stoolie/stooley (1920s) both mean stool pigeon.