Relative to people, there are essentially 2 types of crime. One type, which deals with what we frequently think of in relation to crime (things like theft, murder, assault, narcotic distribution, etc.), is often referred to as blue-collar crime, on account of it being more commonly committed by individuals from a working-class background; the other type of crime is today’s word: white-collar crime. Though we may recognize it as the provider of “big-money” court cases and media coverage, when it comes to understanding what the term actually means and how it acquired the moniker, many are left wondering. So, let’s dig a little deeper.
At its base, white-collar crime is a non-violent crime committed by an individual or a group solely for the purpose of financial gain. The first mention of the exact phrase can be found in a 1940 issue of The American Sociological Review, which discusses how: “The financial loss from white-collar crime, great as it is, is less important than the damage to social relations.” However, looking at a 14 November, 1928 edition of The Ironwood (Michigan) Daily Globe, which states that: “To release him..would leave the impression that educated ‘white collar’ criminals were being favored”, we can see that there was, at least, an understanding of the concept 12 years before its initial use.
Looking beyond the definition and usage, the terminology definitely deserves examining. The foundation of our term is, of course, crime, which comes from the Old French crimne and originated as the Latin crimen, meaning ‘charge, indictment, or offense’. In the meaning of an offensive act punishable by law, the first use of crime can be found in the Wycliffite Bible circa 1384 which, in the Book of Deeds (Acts) 23:29, notes: “And I found, that he was accused of questions of their law, but he had no crime worthy the death, either bonds.”
Building on crime is the noun and adjective white-collar. Compounding the derivatives of the Proto-Germanic hweit, meaning ‘white’, and the Old French coler, meaning ‘collar’, the term, which, specifically references an aspect of the white dress shirt attire of office workers, is metonymy for a person who performs professional, managerial, or administrative (aka non-manual labour) work. While the term white collar was popularised by the American author Upton Sinclair in the 1930s, uses of the term as a noun and an adjective both emerged well before that, with The Logansport Daily Reporter (Indiana) reporting on 20 August 1910 that: “He follows the lure of the white collar to the city and gets a job in which he can wear a white collar all the week.”, and The Galveston Daily News (Texas) remarking in a headline from 23 July 1911: “No ‘white collar’ job.”
Aside from understanding the name, its origin, and what it implies in an abstract sense, white-collar crime typically involves familiar types of financial fraud. Some examples include: securities fraud, which encompasses everything from the highly-publicised insider trading to topics such as embezzlement, falsified financial statements, and stock price manipulation; money laundering, which is the movement of money through transfers and transactions in order to mask its illegally obtained origin; and the ever-popular Ponzi scheme, which involves profiting on attracting an ever-wider pool of investors and recirculating investments to give the illusion of sustainability. Although these are some examples, they are far from being the only means of white-collar crime; moreover, expanding technology, resourcefulness, and the ready willingness of some who put financial gain above all else means that, as consumers and investors, we must all be vigilant not to become caught up in these schemes, if possible. As the old saying goes: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”