The Ecphorizer

The World's Most Expensive Vocabulary
John Cumming

Issue #09 (May 1982)

A peek into the argot of dice players, carny operators, and racetrack touts

Anyone who plays Spit in the Ocean with a subway dealer is waiting to get trimmed, and is rightly called a: Square John, Yuck, Veal Cutlet Patsy, Dunsky, Cucumber, Cuke, Rabbit, Mark, Chippy, Lamb, Layman Monkey, Chump, Mooch, Bird, Pheasant, or Pigeon. So don't become a squawker because

...the ace of clubs is called 'pussyfoot'...

you lost all your berries.

[quoteright]"Spit in the Ocean" is a form of Draw Poker, a "subway dealer" draws from the bottom of the deck, and "berries" is one of many slang expressions for money. A "squawker" is a sore loser. Definitions of all these terms and more are available at very good odds if you luck onto John S. Salak's Dictionary of Gambling published in 1963 by the Philosophical Society (!). After studying it you may still get short caked by a grifter, but not without knowing how to put it into the proper words. Salak describes the content of his book as "the language of horse racing, dice and cards, bookmakers and runners, touts and tote boards, a colorful but expensive language to learn first-hand from the natives."

Its vocabulary is chiefly about money, and how to get it. Money itself (lettuce, berries, moola) is referred to in many colorful ways:

5 cents: jit;
10 cents: dimer, thin one;
25 and 50 cents: two and four bits;
1 dollar: fish, frog, frogskin, shekel, simoleon, slug;
5 dollars: fin, finf, finsky, pound;
10 dollars: sawbuck, tensky;
20 dollars: double sawbuck;
50 dollars: half a yard, small nickel;
100 dollars: a yard, C-note, century, small one;
500 dollars: big nickel;
1,000 dollars: G-note, grand, Nevada lettuce, one big one.

And don't forget "komapa" or "queer" - i.e., counterfeit money.

Craps, a game that has had a great impact on the world of gambling, follows very simple rules: you come out wrong with snake eyes, cock eyes or boxcars, but come right with a nick; otherwise, point and try to buck it. The modern version was adapted by African slaves from the European game of Hazard; the original Hazard, with its layouts and dice-rolling devices, evolved into Chuck-a-luck. This origin give Craps names such as "African dominoes" and "Congo croquet." The crap shooter is an "African golfer." Its numberology includes: snake eyes (one and one), cockeyes (one and two), boxcars (six and six), little Joe (four), sixie from Dixie, eighter from Decatur, and so on. A nick is a "natural" - seven or eleven on the first roll.

A philosopher contemplating the pure simplicity of Craps (all you need is a set of bones and a place to throw them) might regard it as the quintessential existentialist exercise, risking your moola on the chance of the moment. Gamblers are more practical. So whenever the opportunity presents itself, the African golfer will use busters, bricks, capped loads, etc., in an attempt to introduce a little determinism into the game. It's like the quest of modern physics to impose order on chaos. When Einstein said "I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world," he expressed his ignorance of the realities of gambling, for everyone tries to control the shot (put the ears on the die).

Thus the significance of cheating is reflected in the vocabulary of gambling. I did find one term for an honest game, but I forget what it was and can't find it now. On the other hand, a "clean move" is a cleverly executed cheating move. Besides the obvious, "cop" means either to win or to cheat. To "coffee house" is to indulge in sharp practices, usually at cards. A "slicker" is a gambler who cannot be trusted; it must be quite an accomplishment to win this epithet. Busters are misspotted dice (with missing or duplicated numbers). Bricks are dice that are misshapen, and capped loads have some sides made of softer material so they will not bounce true.

If you prefer to throw your money away with a deck of cards (a "railroad bible"), you will want to know that the ace of clubs is called "pussyfoot," the two of spades "little casino," and the ten of spades "big casino." "Black Maria" and "Calamity Jane" both refer to the queen of spades. In Poker, a pair of aces and a pair of eights is called a "dead man's hand," after the legend that Wild Bill Hickok was holding such when he was shot in the back.

Turning to horse race betting, an "eaglebird" is a long-shot winner. A decoy is a horse being loudly touted to the public to help protect the odds on another (more likely to win) horse. A chalk player is a bettor who only bets on favorites, and one who bets on short priced horses (usually to show) is called a "bridge jumper." If you deal with bookies and don't pay your debts, you may get a visit from gorillas, animals, or muscle men, as bill collectors are known in the trade. But don't worry, they won't sue you. Most courts refuse to enforce gambling debts. In this business there are other, more elemental ways...

The expression "game of chance" becomes vast hyperbole when used to describe carnival games. A "grifter" or "flatty" might run an "alibi store," where the game played (it doesn't matter which) is so loaded against the player (or "bird") that direct operator intervention is unnecessary. A "two-way joint" is a carny game that can be run honest or crooked. A pot belly is traditionally the sign of too much leisure, but in a "belly joint" it becomes an essential tool of the trade; here the operator controls a gambling device, usually a wheel of fortune, by pressing his ample middle against the machinery.

Despite the fun I had with the Dictionary of Gambling I regard it as rather skimpy. The only way to gather all the terms in a certain area (cards, dice, etc.) is to look at every page, for there is no crossreferencing. This book would be a good one to convert into a reverse dictionary.

I know how many vocabulary entries there are (2100) because I counted them, not something I would do with a dictionary of ordinary size. A major weakness of its definitions is that there is no information on context, aside from the kind of game played. Hence my narratives employing these terms are probably full of incongruities. Moreover, nothing is said about derivations or etymologies, although some seem obvious. Nevertheless, the Dictionary of Gambling is a very interesting plaything, for those of us who like to play with dictionaries. 

At a recent Mensa party, late at night, John Cumming was observed wandering about, muttering "Is this a dictionary which I see before me, the pages toward my eyes? Come, let me review thee..." God, Dice, and Einstein This phrase has been stated several ways depending on whom you read:  I shall never believe that God plays dice with (a) the world (b) the universe (c) the cosmos

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