the action of stealing goods from a shop while pretending to be a customer
The slang use of the verb lift to mean to steal something from (a shop, etc.) seems to date back to the 16th century. One of the earliest attestations of this usage refers to the London underworld. William Fleetwood (1525?-1594) was the Recorder of the City of London from 1571 to 1592. On 7th July 1585, he gave the following explanations in a letter “to Lord Treasurer Burghley upon Sessions Proceedings of the City, a School for Pickpockets in London, &c.”:
Note that ffoyste is to cutt a pockett, nyppe is to cutt a purse, lyft is to robbe a shoppe or a gentilmans chamber, shave is to ffylche a clooke, a sword, a sylver sponne or such like, that is negligentlie looked unto. Nota, that mylken ken is to commytt a roborie or burgularie in the night in a dwelling howse, &c.
(This letter was published in Original letters, illustrative of English History (1824), compiled by Richard Ellis, who remarked that “the subject of cutpurses, rogues, and masterless men, with the language they assumed in imitation of the Gypsies,” was of great interest to the contemporaries of Queen Elizabeth, during whose reign William Fleetwood was the Recorder of the City of London.)
The word lift was also used as a noun in the sense of a thief. It was first defined by the English writer and playwright Robert Greene (1558-92) in The second part of conny-catching Contayning the discouery of certaine wondrous coosenages, either superficiallie past ouer, or vtterlie vntoucht in the first (1591). The chapter titled The discouery of the Lifting Law thus begins:
The Lift, is he that stealeth or prowleth any Plate, Iuells, boultes of Satten, Ueluet, or such parcels from any place by a slight cōueyance vnder his cloke, or so secretly that it may not be espyed.
(The word coney-catching was made famous by Greene: from its literal sense, rabbit-catching, it was used figuratively to mean cheating, deception, trickery.)
The noun lifter in the sense of a thief is first recorded in The Scottish historie of Iames the fourth, slaine at Flodden, a play by Robert Greene published in 1598:
– I am a lifter maister, by my occupation.
– A lifter, what is that?
– Why sir, I can lift a pot as well as any man, and picke a purse assoone as any theefe in my countrie.
The noun shoplift, meaning a person who steals from a shop, was first mentioned and defined by Richard Head (1637?-1686?) in The canting academy, or, The devils cabinet opened wherein is shewn the mysterious and villanous practices of that wicked crew, commonly known by the names of hectors, trapanners, gilts, &c. : to which is added a compleat canting-dictionary, both of old words, and such as are now most in use : with several new catches and songs, compos’d by the choisest wits of the age (1673):
Shoplift. One that filcheth Commodities out of a Shop, under the pretence of cheapning or buying them of the Shop-keeper.
(Cant was the secret language spoken by professional thieves and beggars. It helped pickpockets and cutpurses to communicate with each other in secret. Richard Head’s Canting Academy followed a tradition of books designed to warn the innocent city dweller against rogues, vagabonds and pickpockets. It recorded the customs, phrases and songs of urban villains and scoundrels, and included an early dictionary of criminal slang.)
The noun shoplifter is first recorded in The English rogue continued in the life of Meriton Latroon, and other extravagants (1671), by Richard Head and Francis Kirkman (1632-circa 1680):
Towards Night these Houses are throng’d with People of all sorts and qualities and then when ravenous Beasts usually seek their prey, there comes in Shoals of Hectors, Trappanners, Guilts, Pads, Biters, Priggs, Divers, Lifters, Kidnappers, Vouchers, Mill-Kens, Decoys, Shop-lifters, Foilers, Bulkers, Droppers, Ramblers, Dounakers and Crosbyters, &c. All these may be ranked under the general appellation of Rooks, this is the Field where the seed of Hemp is sown, and grows till the Gallows groans for it, this is Tyburns Nursery, for yearly some or other of this cursed gang go thither.
The offence was officially recognised in the preamble to the 1698 Act 10 of Parliament, under the reign of William III:
The Crime of stealing Goods privately out of Shops and Warehouses, commonly called Shop-lifting.
Under the Act, shoplifting was a capital offence, and it was not until 1820 that Sir James Mackintosh succeeded in abolishing the death penalty for this offence.