Friday, May 3, 2013

From the Big House to the Big Sleep: how well do you speak gangster?

Bogie and his 'heater'
Any devotee of Warner Brothers movies or Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler thrillers can toss off mug, moll, gumshoe, and canary with the best of them. But some terms are a tad more obscure. Take this little quiz to see how good you are at sussing out underworld lingo. Items come from The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter: Forgotten Hipster Lines, Tough Guy Talk, and Jive Gems
  1. Box man: a) safecracker; b) rail-riding grifter; c) undertaker who keeps his trap shut
  2. earwigging:  a) interrogating; b) eavesdropping; c) planting misinformation
  3. a dingus is a) a statue; b) a clueless cop; c) a gun d) a generic name for a thing
  4. True or false: The term "stool pigeon" is derived from the hunter's practice of fastening a bird to a wooden stool and setting it out as a decoy to attract game.
  5. True or false: Private investigators (PIs) morphed into "private eyes" partly as a result of the Pinkerton Detective Agency's logo of an eye with the legend "We Never Sleep"

  1. Box man: a) safecracker. A "can opener" was a small-time breaker of home and office safes.
  2. earwigging:  = b) eavesdropping.
  3. a dingus = d) a generic name for a thing. Derived from the German ding or the Dutch dinges. Used famously by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
  4. True. The term "stool pigeon" is derived from the hunter's practice of fastening a bird to a wooden stool and setting it out as a decoy to attract game.
  5. True. Private investigators (PIs) morphed into "private eyes" partly as a result of the Pinkerton Detective Agency's logo of an eye with the legend "We Never Sleep"
Further reading: The Vendetta: Special Agent Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, and Hoover's FBI in the Age of Gangsters.
Here's a fun tune that reflects the "Hipsters, Hepsters, and Daddy-O's" chapter of The Cheaper the Crook

And here's "Minnie the Moocher" by the original hep cat himself. ("Kickin' the gong around"—what a great name for a music blog!) It's from the excellent collection Lullaby of Harlem.

10 comments:

  1. No problem with the quiz (oh, my misspent youth!)
    While reading "The Big Sleep", I ran into a line which may have a very different meaning today.
    About Joe Brody's girl. "She has to blow and she's shatting on her uppers. She figures the peeper can give her some dough."
    The meaning as I construed it is not what the slang dictionaries say today!
    Reader beware of language's shifting sands!

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  2. did terribly on that quiz...womp womp. So Gioconda, what does that quote mean in English?

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    1. What I gathered from the plot was that the girl had to leave town fast, and offered to sell info to Marlowe in exchange for traveling money.
      But when I looked up the terms individually online...let's just say she needs a new pair of shoes!

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    2. haha whoa that's not what I thought that quote would mean at all. my how times have changed!

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  3. You guys should do a piece on British gangster slang! Cockney Rhyming Slang, in particular, is probably one of the most bizarre dialects in the English language. You should look into it!

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    Replies
    1. I must admit, I have never been able to catch on to Cockney slang ... it's like a code I can't break!

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    2. Cockney? I'm still trying to ken what Burns had to say to a haggis!
      "The groaning trenchers there ye fill,
      Your hurdles like a distant hill,
      Your pin wad help to mend a mill
      In time o' need,
      Whil' thro' your pores the dews distil
      Like amber bead."

      Mmm, tasty!

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    3. I am so LOL ... quickly glancing I thought you were referring to a doc in which Ken Burns was droning on about haggis (the well would have really run dry on topics!) Anyway, before reading the paean by RB to the national dish of Scotland, I had almost gotten my head around trying it sometime.

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  4. Back with the quizzes! I did much better on this one, only one wrong. Apparently I thought dingus would be associated with cops. I blame my lack of exposure to gangster movies, they've never really seemed all that appealing to me. I second the motion for Cockney slang.

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  5. This quiz was a breeze I got all but one correct. Love all of the stills of Humphrey Bogart, larger than life on screen, but an average sized man in real life, only 5ft 9.

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