The Ecphorizer

The Dictionary of American Slang
John Cumming

Issue #39 (November 1984)

The Dictionary of American Slang, Second Supplemental Edition, 1975, compiled by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner, is a large, scholarly work, and rich enough in substance to defy the savage humor of Bierce, who denounced slang as "The grunt of the human hog...with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his [quoteright'/>ear..." (from the Devil's Dictionary). The authors make clear that "slang" is merely an academic category used by those who study language. There is no reason to avoid using a word simply because it is labeled "slang." In the preface, the authors describe the levels of English thus: standard usage (acceptable to any degree of formality), colloquialisms (universal in use, but not explicit or formal enough for polite conversation), dialects (peculiar to a specific locale or ethnic group), and cant, jargon, and argot. Cant is the familiar idiom of some subgroup of our culture, jargon is the technical shop talk or secret vocabulary of a subgroup, and argot is used as the cant and jargon of a criminal group. It is these last three that make up slang.

In their explanatory notes the authors make clear that they are interested chiefly in modern American usage. Furthermore, few sports terms are included, fewer commercial inventions, and neologisms and nonce words only when they appear to be very popular. Slang expressions from movies and novels are included on the assumption that one will encounter them and need a reference. This is a careful, scholarly work, and if your favorite slang term isn't in here, the omission is probably deliberate.

Memorialized herein is the first major contribution to general slang by rock and roll music: "all shook up." From the title of a popular song by Elvis Presley, it was first heard in 1955, before rock musicians abolished language completely.

Another entry as fresh as the Eisenhower years is "Post-Elvis," a type of haircut developed in 1957 by the Army. An "easy transitional haircut" described as having normal sideburns but being less "sinister" in character than an "Elvis," the Post-Elvis was the sort of thing the Army had to put up with to get recruits when there wasn't a draft (Let your hair be all it can be--in the Army). Many slang terms have a brief currency and then pass into oblivion. Now terms like these will live on, embalmed by academics.

In the movie The Blues Brothers, Cab Calloway sings a jazz song called "Minnie the Moocher," which contains the slang expression "kick the gong around." For those of you who have been wondering, it means to smoke opium. "Minnie the Moocher" is loaded with jazz-related slang like this one. Minnie, incidentally, is also a slang term for Minneapolis.

Among the neat jazz terms one can find herein is "box of teeth" for an accordion. This is given as a word that jazzmen don't use much, but that is popularly associated with jazz. No one should be surprised that "horn" in jazz is the trumpet or that a "bone" is the trombone (circa 1915). There is a fairly long and finely drawn definition for "blues." The definitions for "jazz" itself runs to almost two pages.

In jazz terms, a "moldy fig" is someone who prefers traditional jazz to progressive forms. "Mop mop" is jazz that is repetitious and unimaginative. "Maps" refers to sheet music (and the entry cautions that it is considered uncool in some circles to use sheet music).

Many of the above definitions are taken from S. Longstreet's The Real Jazz Old and New. Inevitably, the Dictionary of American Slang cannot cover a specific field with anything like the depth of a more specialized dictionary. Rather, it tries to supply the reader with a sufficiency of words for most occasions. There seems to be a strong bias toward including reet down with it, like, words, dig?

"Neat" is listed, but the only definition given as a slang use is "straight," as in whiskey taken without water or soda. Using soda water to dilute good whiskey is the sign of a wimp, of course, "wimp" being a slang term for a "drip" or "mince." Cheap, raw whisky is called "tiger sweat" (a jazz term, ca. 1956). A WW II armed forces term for beer is "panther sweat."

A truly puzzling entry is "spizzerinktum" or "spizzerinctum," a word defined as meaning vigor and documented from 1953 in the magazine American Agriculture. "Spizerinctums" is actually a somewhat older word recorded in 1869 in Texas, and meaning "hard" money, or "specie." Mary Helen Dohan, in Our Own Words noted that the word was collected for the Overland Monthly magazine by an observer who signed himself "Socrates Hyacinth." How an expression like that came to be used among (according to the Dictionary of American Slang) the "older and snappier circles along the Eastern seaboard" (cited in the New Yorker, Feb. 21, 32/2) is an interesting mystery. It is significant to note that while the authors of the Dictionary of American Slang found the examples in two twentieth century periodicals, they failed to trace this word to an earlier source.

In their preface, the authors insist that they are interested only in American slang, and that any slang word qualifies as such if it is used in America, regardless of origins. Fair enough. It follows quite rightly from this that "spic and span" is defined as "mixed Puerto Rican and Negro," either of couples or a neighborhood. "Spic" here is supposed to be a term used for various immigrant groups, starting with Italians. "Span" is supposed to be an abbreviation for Spanish. The whole phrase arises from a popular trademarked detergent. The authors would probably be uninterested in the fact that "spic and span" was first recorded by Samuel Johnson in 1755 and referred to cloth "newly extended on the spikes or tenters." The "span" part goes back to Chaucer's day and the expression "span-new," for cloth newly stretched, or spanned.

Chaucer is acknowledged in the entry for "goon" to the extent of having used the word, but his use is not illustrated. All the definitions are fairly modern, only one standing out as unusual: a native Virgin Islander. (The authors explain only that the islands, as well as the word, were once Dutch.) The variant "goonlet," for a young goon, was cited from Collier's and described as "never common." They probably shouldn't have bothered. There is a certain measure of journalistic clutter in this book, which is an indication of the extent of the authors' scholarship, if nothing else.

There is a very extensive list of definitions for that very useful word "bug." There is even an update in the supplemental section in order to catch up with changes between 1967 and 1975. Nowhere, however, is "bug" given an association with the field of data processing. "Bug" can be a joker in a deck of cards, an enthusiast, a prostitute, and so on. The failure of the authors and their researchers to discover the use of "bug" as a flaw (or "feature") in a computer program (and, by extension, any complex system or device) means that they missed a chance to record the famous anecdote of the moth in the ENIAC that is supposed to have inspired this usage. Pity. In fact, I found no "buzzwords" at all in this work, which suggests that the authors had a strong bias to the more gritty slang terms of traditional, back-home America. The absence of computer terms makes this an ideal book for the typical Silicon Valley hacker, to turn his eyes for a moment from the baleful glare of the CRT and consider another kind of interface, with realtime life.

An illustration of the method by which many of the slang terms in this dictionary were collected can be seen by the references used to document many of the meanings of "bug." Bug as an enthusiast is found in the Dictionary of American English, 1921, and illustrated by a quote from Leather, by Witwer. Bug as an obsession is illustrated by quotes from Runyon and the New Yorker. Bug as an insane person is illustrated by a quote from Hairy Ape, by O'Neill (qualified as not common, however). Many other citations are from underworld, army, or prison use. Whenever a definition is based on a literary quote, without any other usage cited, I suspect that the compilers may have been taken in by an inventive author. On the other hand, a likely use of this dictionary would be to explain obscure slang used by famous authors, so one shouldn't complain.

Westerners may be surprised that an expression missing from this work is "kick back," as to sit down and relax. "Kick back" is recognized only as a cash payback, or rebate. When I first heard this expression used in the former sense I asked its meaning, and was greeted with surprise when I mentioned that I had never heard "kick back" used that way prior to coming to the West Coast. Apparently the authors of this dictionary never heard it either.

A strength of this dictionary is the collection of terms from special groups, such as railroaders. Among the railroading terms I have spotted from just a brief browse: buggy or glory wagon (the caboose); bug torch (a lantern); bully (a railroad track workman); bull-fighter (an empty railroad freight car (also hobo use)).

An especially charming railroad term is "jerkwater town." "Jerkwater" was to take on water while in motion, scooping it from a trough. Thus a "jerkwater" or "jerk" town was a town too small to stop at, and known only as a place to jerk water.

A hobo term for Jesus Christ is "Jerusalem Slim." A "cackler" is an old (ca. 1920) hobo term for an office worker. There is a fairly extensive collection of uses for "bum." "A hobo will work, a tramp won't, a bum can't," goes a quote from the CBS radio network.

This dictionary contains the first explanation I have found of the origins of "thirty" or 30, signifying the end. Commonly written at the end of the draft of a newspaper story to signify to the typesetter that the end has been reached, thirty comes from the end marker used by telegraph operators in the early days of wire, "XXX." Another telegraph use, qualified as "not common," is to euphemize death. Another use, for "good-by," is from a Shirley Temple film and cited in the Herald Tribune. The authors of this dictionary might have been interested to know that room 30 signifies the morgue in some hospitals (Sequoia Hospital, Redwood City, California, for example).

The ways in which the most authentic expressions have been collected also suggest the amazing persistence and dedication of the compilers; take "titty-boo" for example. In the sense of a young, female prisoner, "titty-boo" is directly cited from a remark made in 1958 by an older female prisoner about a younger one in the NYC Women's House of Detention. Somehow, I am more willing to respect a usage like this than I would something taken from a Shirley Temple movie.

Prying individuals might be able to use this dictionary to divine the approximate age of people simply by researching speech habits. An example is "anyhoo." "Anyhoo" is a corruption of "anyhow" and is noted as a "jocular mispronunciation considered sophisticated c1945-c1950." I have actually heard "anyhoo" used regularly by someone who was probably in her late youth during those years. If you really want to confound people, use "blowing" for drunk. "Blowing" in this sense is an obsolete term from the 1850s.

In his series of "Nonlectures" given at Harvard during 1952 and 1953, the poet e. e. cummings, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., recalled a childhood visit to the study of a professor, where he saw "student booklets of a menacing bluish shade" (Nonlecture Two). Since cummings graduated in 1915, and this recollection was from an earlier period of his life, I had decided that the menacing blue booklets of my own college years must have quite a long history of use. The Dictionary of American Slang confirms it! Among the definitions for "blue-book" are "A test or examination." In use since about 1890, this expression arises from "the thin, blue-covered notebook of blank pages commonly provided by colleges for students to use in writing answers. One wonders how many students realize as they take up pens in their sweaty, trembling hands and begin to scrawl their precious essays in the little blue booklet, that they are participating in a ritual older than this century.

On the subject of academic rituals, the word "quiz" dates from 1860, according to the Dictionary of American Slang. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, however, "quiz" appeared about 1780. Brewer also recounts, as a possible fable, that a Mr. Daly, manager of a Dublin theater, bet that he could introduce a new word into the language within 24 hours, and won the bet by chalking the word "quiz" on every wall he could reach, causing the whole town to wonder what the word meant. In the Dictionary of American Slang, the tale of Mr. Daly is not mentioned (since this is a completely American lexicon) and the entry for "quiz" is largely given over to "quizzee," alleged to be a word in frequent use "owing to the many television quiz shows." Bierce may not have been so wrong, after all.

Slang terms aren't supposed to be found in normal dictionaries, but modern lexicographers are always ready to confound the unwary. A slang term (so designated by its inclusion in this work) that I have found in a "normal" lexicon is "lab." Another is "kosher." Also "lagniappe." Given enough time, this entire dictionary might become swallowed up by the big boys like Random House and G. & C. Merriam (publishers of the real Webster's). 

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.

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