I don’t remember where I came across the word “chiseler” in the past day or so, but the word stuck with me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak the word since I heard my father use it many, many years ago.
I did a bit of research and found an article by J. Louis Kuethe in the June, 1932 edition of the professional journal, American Speech, published by the American Dialect Society. Kuethe said the term chiseler was (in 1932) used by students at the Johns Hopkins University (the article dealt with student jargon). It had been in common use a hundred years earlier and only recently had come into common use again, he said. My father would have been almost thirty years old at the time; he attended the University of Texas and practiced law for a time in that era. I wonder whether he picked up the term as it was returning to common usage among students back then?
A little more research revealed the word in use in the early 1940s in popular fiction magazines. And it continues, even today, but it seems to be quite rare. As I said, I don’t remember anyone using it since I heard my father use it. I think he used it on occasion to refer to people he considered cheaters and swindlers.
It’s interesting to me that a single word can conjure up remnants of memories long since buried under layers of time and experience. I don’t remember specific instances of my father referring to someone as a chiseler, but I know he used the world. Memory, although an incredible faculty, is as porous as sponge. It absorbs enormous volumes of information, but retains only a fraction of what it takes in; the rest leaks away, dry and chalky and subject to blowing away in the wind.