Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Welcome to Slang City

My latest column in the Malaysia Star. There is, of course, a lot more to be written on the subject of slang as spoken in New York City, both currently and historically, but the length of a newspaper column allows for only the lightest touches and I sought to keep an eye on the audience of Malaysian English-speakers to whom all of it might be new.

It’s a spoiling good time listening to the millions of voices in New York City. Sometimes a little piece of all that talk changes your language.

For example, if you take a ride in a yellow taxicab, you’ll see a metal emblem riveted to the hoods. That medallion shows that the car’s owner has purchased the right to operate on city streets.

The opposite of the licensed taxis are the gypsy cabs. Gypsy is used to describe something that roams ungoverned. Cabs of all kinds are one of the causes of gridlock, coined in 1980. Gridlock means that there’s such a traffic jam that all the vehicles are going nowhere.

Dollar vans are another way people get around the five boroughs of New York City. These are privately owned passenger vans that operate along loose regular routes, just like city-run buses. They used to cost only a dollar, thus the name, but, like everything else, the dollar vans now usually cost more than a dollar.

A borough, by the way, is a political division within a city. Each of the city’s five boroughs in turn has its own named neighbourhoods. Inside the borough of Manhattan, for example, are neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

Besides lending the vast lexicon of food items that can be eaten in the vast dim sum halls of Chinatown, the Chinese experience here has left other terms in English.

According to lurid newspaper reports from the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the hatchet was the favourite weapon of assassins working on behalf of the Chinese tongs. The assassins were, of course, called hatchet men, a term that first appeared in New York City and San Francisco.

Now a hatchet man is someone who writes negative things about someone else on behalf of a third person. Consultants who are paid to tell large corporations that they need to fire thousands of people are also called hatchet men.

A term you will still see occasionally is highbinder, which in the early 1800s meant a violent criminal or thug. The word was taken from the name of the High-binders, an Irish gang.

Highbinder was later used to refer to a member of a secret Chinese criminal gang, especially an assassin. By 1890 it referred to a slimy – disreputable or untrustworthy – politician.

This is the life of words: they travel paths of transformation. Like hatchet man, highbinder has become less negative over the years. These days it is mainly an inkhorn term, one used by journalists to show off their thesauruses.

A word that thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s in New York City but now appears to have completely fallen out of the language is lobbygow.

In a well-known murder trial in 1914, one of the witnesses described a lobbygow as “a pal and a friend willing to do almost anything he is told”. Early police literature describes lobbygows as white men who run errands for the powerful Chinese underworld bosses.

By the 1930s, a lobbygow was a person who would lead tourists on slumming tours of Chinatown. The middle and upper classes could get a first-hand look at how the lower class lived. Lobbygows were believed to be as likely to lead someone to a planned mugging as they were to show them opium dens.

Like language, the city changes. There are no more opium dens and no longer do the tenements – crowded apartment buildings – of the Lower East Side house the heart of the city’s Jewish community.

But we still have the Yiddish term schnook, meaning a sucker, a rube, or a loser, a term which dates to the early 1940s in English. It’s related to shmuck and schmo, which are similar Yiddish-derived terms.

Even further entrenched in English is shtick. Shtick is sometimes used these days to refer to anybody’s standard way of behaving, either to get attention or to get something they want.

As far back as the 1960s it meant a theatre performer’s routine, the thing they do in order to get paid. An actor or anybody with a public persona who has need, on occasion, to haul out their shpiel – synonymous to the German spiel, meaning a long story or rehearsed routine – probably has a shtick.

A typical shpiel is what you hear from a salesman who tries to sell you things. Just the other day, an annoying election campaigner came to the house to ask about my political opinions. I threw him out on his tukkus —Yiddish for rear end, rump, or buttocks.

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Grant Barrett