Back in the days of absolute monarchy in Europe, property wasn’t quite what we think of it as today. Oh, you could own things…but the Crown could confiscate it at any moment. For that matter, if you died without an heir, guess where your holdings went? Yep–back to the Crown. Ultimately, everything in a country belonged to its monarch.

And they didn’t forget it. In fact, they had someone whose sole job was to reclaim land or possessions for the Crown (lower lords had these too) in certain cases. This person was called an escheater, because they handled the echeat–this reversion of property to the monarch or lord. The word came from French echete, which means “inheritance,” which in turn comes from the Latin excadere. Both of these are legal terms and legal offices.

But here’s the thing…the people who held those offices? Yeah, they were notoriously corrupt, just like tax collectors were infamous for being. They would seize property they had no business seizing and keep it for themselves. They would skim off the top of what they handed over to the king or lord.

So though cheater was a legal term for that office from the mid-1400s onward, by the late 1500, it had come to mean “someone who deprives unfairly” and cheat had become a verb that meant “trick, deceive, impose upon.”

The idea of someone being unfaithful in a relationship didn’t come along as a meaning of cheat and cheater until the 1930s. Not that the concept was new, of course, but that was the first this word had been used for it. 😉

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