Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

How much underworld slang is still used from 80 years ago?

My latest column in the Malaysia Star: Underworld lingo. The column, as always, is written for an audience that may not be perfectly fluent with English.

In 1931, the Los Angeles Times published a story headlined Underworld lingo. It was a lexicon of criminal cant and jargon written by Ben Kendall, a police reporter.

Kendall formerly was a police reporter in Chicago, too, where he uncovered bribes and corruption by making friends with pickpockets, safeblowers, and shoplifters. Some eight years later, Kendall would be indicted and convicted for his role in bribery related to illegal gambling in Los Angeles.

So, given his experience on both sides of the law, one can only assume that the lingo he recorded was genuine. But how much of it lasted? Seventy-eight years on, we find that some of the lingo is still in use, while some of it has vanished.

Alky is recorded by Kendall as “straight alcohol.” Most people today would use it to mean an acoholic drinker rather than the drink itself.

Angle he records as “a plan; a lead,” which is more or less how it’s used today. If someone says, “I don’t know what his angle is, but he’s up to no good,” they’d mean that the fellow seemed to be planning something suspicious.

Booster does indeed still mean a shoplifter. Boost in general means “to steal” and a booster bag is a specially designed bag that is meant to conceal stolen merchandise as it is taken out of a store.

Chiv is common still in prison lingo, though it’s usually spelled shiv. An even older form is chive, meaning a knife as far back as the 17th century. A shiv is a knife, too, but in prison slang it is especially a crude, improvised one, such as a toothbrush that has had a razor blade attached to it.

Grand still means a thousand dollars. Take still means “a share,” too, but it’s a fairly straight business term: “What’s my take on all this? If he gets 15% of the ticket money, I want 15%, too.” A pay-off is still a bribe or a payment made to someone to keep them from hurting you or your things.

Haywire, Kendall writes, is a “mental aberration.” Today we’d say that a machine went haywire more often than we would say a person went haywire. We mean the machine started malfunctioning.

Jam still means trouble or a sticky situation. “Can you help me out with the rent this month? I’m in a jam until payday.” Or, “I’m in a jam with the wife. She doesn’t know I was at the bar last night. Tell her I was at your house.”

Lug he defines as a “stupid fellow; a hanger-on,” which is close to the way we’d use it today, but not quite. We’d say a man (almost never a woman) is a big lug, which would mean that he was kind of stupid, but also clumsy or ungainly. It’s often used as an affectionate insult. “You big lug! You didn’t have to bring me flowers!” might be the kind of thing a woman would say in a fake tough voice.

Muscling in is still done pretty much as Kendall defined it: “to force one’s way in for a cut on the profits of a venture.” People still get nailed, too, meaning they get caught or arrested. And screwy still means “crazy.”

Kendall calls a wing-ding “a fit; berserk,” which is a meaning that other dictionaries show to have been more common in the past. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it more fully as “a fit or spasm, esp. as simulated by a drug addict” and in a “weakened sense, a furious outburst.”

However, only a later meaning is used today, which is “a party.” I daresay that no-one who today throws a wing-ding is faking a seizure so that they can get controlled drugs from a doctor.

Yentz hasn’t lasted. It meant “to outsmart” or “to defeat.” It was sometimes spelled yence or yince and had another crude, sexual meaning that meant “to have a non-romantic act of copulation.” Both meanings are synonymous with different meanings of screw.

Loogan (sometimes spelled loogin or lugan, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) is also no longer used to mean “a minor hoodlum,” though hood, recorded by Kendall, is still used to mean “a petty gangster.”

For what it’s worth, I find loogan in Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary of 1825 with a definition of “a rogue” and in a couple of modern amateur lists of prison slang online as meaning “mentally ill prisoner” in Ontario, Canada.

Perhaps one of the most interesting additions to Kendall’s slang list is his definition of quim as “anybody’s sweetheart.” Historically, and more often, this term has meant “the vagina.”

Even when used to mean “a woman” (a usage confined mainly to North America) it has usually been the crudest of terms meant to refer to the woman as chattel (a personal possession) or as nothing more than the target of sexual acts. It objectifies her as being no better than what her sexual organs are good for.

It’s possible that Kendall only knew the term in a purer, more innocent form. But I imagine, especially given his connection with the rougher corners of the underworld, that he knew very well about its less polite meaning. He would have had a laugh at getting such a coarse word printed in a daily newspaper in a time when even hell and damn might not have been allowed.

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Grant Barrett