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"CHEAT is mowed down by wife" said the Sun headline, and we all knew what sort of cheat it meant. In popular newspaper language a cheat is usually a love rat. "Lottery love rat Mark Gardiner cheated on his pregnant mistress by having a torrid affair with a stripper," as the Sun reveals on another page of the same issue. Great story, eh folks? But in Edwardian times, and indeed later, too, anyone reading that headline would be just as likely to assume that the mown-down husband had been cheating at cards.

If love had come into it the word in those days would probably have been deceiver. "Oh don't deceive me" sang the maiden in the valley below. The verb "to cheat on", in the Sun's sense, comes from the United States, and the earliest instance of it found by the editors of the OED is from 1934. P G Wodehouse used it in 1972; he lived in America and I don't think it was too common over here by then. In its Elizabethan youth cheating was mostly about stolen property (it comes from escheat, property forfeited by a tenant), then later about fraud. Tennyson used the noun in a sexual sense in "Maud", where the passionate hero hopes to himself that the girl isn't a cheat - but all he means is a flirt, or what we would nowadays call a tease (innocent Maud was 16 at the time).

There's a big difference between the verb and the noun, the verb being weak, the noun strong. You can cheat fate, say, or "cheat a bit" (make a short cut) without any implication of villainy. But a cheat is always a real baddie. A grand word for headlines; but its popular meaning, as I say, has narrowed. In the tabloids' fantasy world, sex is only a game.

Nicholas Bagnall