*Palm Off vs. Pawn Off

A Los Angeles Times article in September reported that a popular Chinese gift called mooncakes are a lot more popular with givers than with recipients. The small, dense cakes filled with everything from red bean paste to cheesecake have become China’s equivalent of our fruitcakes, the Times reported, citing the case of one Zou Jin:

“The 30 cakes that Zou had received from her employer and various clients weeks ago sat unopened and neglected under her desk as the 31-year-old marketing manager tried to pawn them off on anyone who would take them."

It was an interesting article, but I never got past the “pawn off” bit. Did the Times mean “palm off”?

To “pawn” means “to give or deposit (personal property) as security for the payment of money borrowed.” So according to this definition, Zou was only pawing off the cakes if she was using them as collateral for loans.

The writer might have done better to choose “palm off.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “palm off” means “to pass off by deception, substitute with intent to deceive. So if you’re trying to sucker your co-workers into believing that your mooncakes are anything more than trashcan ballast, you’re palming them off.

It would be natural to assume that “pawn off” is therefore a mistake. But that would be going too far. Here’s the same source on “pawn off”: “to dispose of by deception, as in 'They tried to pawn off a rebuilt computer as new.'  This expression may have originated as a corruption of palm off.”

That doesn’t mean it’s still a corruption, though: “pawn off. This is a peculiar expression,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, noting that almost no slang dictionaries or usage guides bother to mention it. It is, however, “easy enough to interpret: it must mean ‘palm off’ or ‘pass off’ or ‘fob off.’ … The Oxford English Dictionary thinks it erroneous for ‘palm,’ but it may in fact be a dialectical variant.”

In other words, you could argue that “pawn off” is an acceptable alternative to “palm off.” But why would you want to? It seems to me that “palm off” is the better choice.

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2 Responses to “*Palm Off vs. Pawn Off”

  1. Yes, but "pawn off" is easier to pronounced than "palm off". The two open ending words in a row are difficult for me to pronounce. So I would prefer "pawn off" on that basis.

  2. At least that writer had something legit to write about.