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A Reminder to Hustle Porn Devotees: ‘Hustle’ Actually Means ‘Swindle’

But then, maybe we’re still using it right after all

“Hustling” has long been a term of multitudinous meanings. In a broad sense, it’s meant to trick or persuade by nefarious means. In more specific contexts, it’s meant to con someone out of money in a game of pool by under-representing one’s skill, or to procure customers as a sex worker on the street

But today’s hustlers aren’t waging bets in bars or collecting cash in motel rooms — at least that’s not how they represent themselves. Instead, today’s hustlers are of the “rise n’ grind” set, claiming to work harder and longer than their peers, shirking sleep and free time. If the Instagram hashtag “hustle” is any indication of the word’s current meaning, the hustlers of the moment read Warren Buffett, wake up at 4 a.m. and use social media only to post inspirational quotes. The hustlers who appear here are budding “entrepreneurs,” attempting to prove to themselves or others that the effort is worth it, that success can be achieved.

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To use a definition from a writer on LinkedIn — the true home of hustlers — hustle means “that you work hard. It means that you work hard every single day. It means you do the things other people won’t do, and you do them with a sense of joy and purpose because you love it. It means working smarter. It doesn’t mean looking to hack and find shortcuts because you don’t want to do the hard stuff. You work hard and you work smart.” 

This is all true to the word’s earliest form, which had an association with vigorous effort and force (it’s thought to originate from the Dutch word husseln, meaning to shake or toss). By the mid-1700s, the term was also sometimes applied to street thieves and pickpockets, but by and large, it was the positive connotation that remained: Per a Wall Street Journal article, a job-hunter who posted an ad in the St. Louis Dispatch in 1880 identified himself as a “thorough worker, well posted and good hustler.” 

As described by Merriam-Webster, “hustler” only began to commonly refer to swindlers — people pulling a bait-and-switch upon the unwitting — in the early 20th century, although even as this was popularly used, it still also referred to someone attempting to make money in any form. By the 1950s, Black newspapers regularly used the term “side hustle” in both positive and negative contexts: In a 1958 issue of The Pittsburgh Courier, for example, Masco Young wrote, “That well-known Chicago Scoutmaster and church official whose friends are unaware of his lucrative side-hustle… he dons a colorful costume, pulls out a crystal ball and becomes a ‘Prophet’ who sells numbers and gives spiritual advice to all who pay his fat fee.”

This more negative connotation reared its head most prominently recently with the 2019 film Hustlers. While the act of strippers convincing customers to spend money could accurately be labeled a hustle all of its own, the film specifically documents a more unethical hustle conducted by former strippers, who drug men and charge thousands of dollars to their credit cards. Despite this less than aspirational approach, the movie hasn’t made a dent in the pro-workaholism understanding of the term.

Perhaps part of the reason we now think almost exclusively of the more ambitious definition of hustling is that the way we’re forced to work today requires it. We no longer have the safeguards of a guaranteed pension, a reliable 401k or the promise of Social Security. For many millennials, our careers feel flimsy, like they could crack beneath us at any moment. More recent generations seemingly went through life with the bumpers up, but now we’re being forced to play with the gutters wide open. As a result, we’ll do anything to keep from falling in, with a desperation that sometimes feels borderline criminal. 

But while we’re the ones who might be hustling, we’re still the ones being scammed.