Q From Meg Morley: Following up your item last week about all sizzle and no steak, could the Wheeler who prompted the saying have also inspired wheeling and dealing?
A Wheeling and dealing is American, like the famous depression-era salesman Elmer Wheeler you mention, but some research shows that it has nothing to do with anybody called Wheeler. However, it does come into being in his time.
Its origins are hinted at in early twentieth-century references to gamblers who could run either a roulette wheel or a card game, that is, could wheel or deal. This has been seriously suggested as the origin but can only have been a slight influence at best because the idea never became formalised into a set expression. Another sense of wheel that was in the air and may have contributed was the 1930s slang term for a gangster, more generally (and often as big wheel) any prominent and important person.
However, the record shows that the direct origin was the motor trade, largely because it made an apposite rhyming catchphrase. Advertisers in the 1930s offered “wheel deals”, good prices on cars, and later expanded the expression into a verb, as this early example shows:
C. & M. OIL CO. See ‘COXIE’ — He Will “Wheel ‘n Deal” the Bargains
The Sikeston Herald (Missouri), 17 Jun. 1940.
Wheel and deal became more common in the motor business after the Second World War and later broadened its appeal beyond the trade to shrewd bargaining of any kind. The form wheeling and dealing naturally followed.
A further stage of development was to turn the phrase into a noun for a person, a wheeler-dealer. This starts to become widely known in the late 1950s and was defined in Wentworth and Flexner’s Dictionary of American Slang in 1960 as “an adroit, quick-witted, scheming person”. But its story goes back at least a decade, at first meaning a car salesman:
George Butler, the wheeler-dealer at the Jackson Goldie Chrysler-Plymouth place, is back from an Oregon trip.
Daily Review (Hayward, California), 13 Jul. 1951.
Within a few years it had evolved into the meaning we now know:
Texas’ fabulous multi-millionaires — particularly ex San Antonian Clinton Williams Murchison, “the biggest wheeler-dealer of ’em all” — are glorified and joshed in [this] week’s Time magazine cover story.
San Antonio Express (Texas) 24 May 1954.