What’s the difference between a theft and a heist?
A heist is a kind of theft, sure. But not just any kind. You have three big kinds of heists that people talk of: a bank heist, an art heist, and a jewel heist.
So a heist is a theft of something highly valuable. Or, more to the point, it’s a theft of something with a huge symbolic or socially ordained value. Money is just paper, after all; it just happens to be paper issued by the right people with the right printing on it, thereby signifying a promise of exchange of value. Art is the fruit of labours, but the value of a given piece of art can change hugely over its lifetime based on tastes and perceptions, and a painting or sculpture does not have the same kind of functional value as food does. Jewelry has value because of social norms and rarity – diamonds don’t actually have to be as expensive as they are; their value is substantially inflated because of their social significance (abetted by marketing campaigns and careful control of availability).
So a heist is a theft of something at the heights of value – socially determined, non-intrinsic value. And it’s big. I’m tempted to say a heist is a theft of something big enough that you have to hoist it, but a jewel heist might be no more than one person can carry and yet still be worth millions.
The real reason I’m tempted to say a heist is a hoist is that, actually, it is. Heist is just a dialectal variant of hoist – a nonstandard US pronunciation. Hoist, in this sense, doesn’t require the aid of a hoist; any kind of lifting is sufficient, including shoplifting (though no one would now talk in full seriousness of heisting a pack of Twinkies from the dépanneur or T-shirt from The Gap). That is all hoist was in the first place – in Shakespeare’s time, if you were blown into the air by your own short-fused mine, you were hoist with your own petard.
But look at just one thing here: the spelling. The pronunciation is [haɪst]. But when we spell it, we use the German-style ei for the diphthong. Oddly, that’s the least ambiguous option, even though it’s not exactly phonetic spelling: haist could be misread, and hyst likewise. Highst just looks like a typo. We find ourselves, due to socially determined habits of spelling, having to hew to the arbitrary combination of letters that simple seems most likely. We choose the spelling heist because of a socially determined value similar to the sort that will help us to decide exactly which pieces of paper, shiny rocks, or painted canvases we are planning to heist.