How ‘Flip’ Entered the Story of the Russia Investigation – Word’s history is tied to prosecutors, mobsters and novelists
On Monday, court documents revealed that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump, had entered into a plea agreement after his July arrest and had tried to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. This promoted speculation that the Mueller team may have “flipped” Mr. Papadopoulos.
As a HuffPost headline read about the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, “Robert Mueller Flipped a Trump Campaign Adviser. That’s Bad News for the White House.”
When a prosecutor “flips” a witness, that witness has been talked into providing information and testifying against associates or accomplices, typically in exchange for leniency. (Mr. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about his contacts with Russia during the campaign.) “Flipping” is a term that originated in underworld slang before being embraced in law-enforcement circles.
The word “flip” has been used since the 16th century to refer to tossing something in the air so that it turns over quickly, like flipping a coin. It is historically related to the word “fillip,” originally an onomatopoetic term for the flick of a finger. Over time, “flip” developed a variety of slang senses. “Flipping your lid” or “flipping your wig” means losing your composure, often shortened to “flipping” or “flipping out.” It also came to be used not just for turning someone or something over, but for turning someone against another person.
Slang dictionaries record one early printed use of “flip on,” meaning “to inform on an associate,” in the 1960 crime novel “The Scene,” by Clarence Cooper Jr. In Cooper’s story, one petty criminal assures another, “I won’t flip on you. I’ll never flip on nobody again.”
This use of “flip” joined a colorful collection of terms for informing on someone to the police. The informer might “sing like a canary,” “squeal,” “snitch,” “rat on” associates or “sell them down the river.”
From the perspective of law enforcement, persuading criminals to “flip on” their confederates came to be known as “flipping” them, transforming “flip” into a transitive verb with the turncoat as the object.
As early as 1980, police in Manhattan were using “flip” in this way, as documented in the book “Times Square” by New York Daily News investigative reporter William Sherman. His book was billed as “the true story of an undercover cop on the toughest beat in America.” In it, an officer is quoted as saying, “Something tells me we can flip these two guys.”
The word also shows up in Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 book “Wiseguy,” which served as the basis for Martin Scorsese’s movie “Goodfellas.” Former prosecutor Edward A. McDonald, who served as attorney-in-charge of the Federal Organized Crime Strike Force in New York, recalled zeroing in on Henry Hill, who was part of the criminal ring responsible for a 1978 heist at John F. Kennedy Airport. He is quoted as saying, “If there was ever a time to flip him against his old crew it was at that moment.”
After flipping Hill in real life, Mr. McDonald got to flip him all over again when he played himself in “Goodfellas.”