Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Hoodlum


I suspect you probably have heard the term "hoodlum" before. However, were you aware that hoodlums originally hailed from San Francisco?

It's true!

You can read about it in the SFGate article 'Hoodlums' a distinctive San Francisco product' of the 1870s by Gary Kamia right here.

For more historical edification, there is this definition from Americanisms, Old and New (and so on and so forth) by John Stephen Farmer:


Hoodlum.—A young rough. The term originated in San Francisco, but is now general throughout the Union.

For an historical perspective on hoodlums and hoodlumism, check out Lights and Shades in San Francisco by Benjamin E. Lloyd, published 1876, which has an entire chapter on the subject (and yes, you can view and download the book with the link I've provided).

A couple of passages caught my interest. The first talks about "corner groceries," which are not at all what I thought they were (i.e., local stores to buy canned goods, milk, cheese, what-have-you):
Of evenings, these corner grocery bar-rooms are largely patronized as "loafing-places," by the mechanics, laborers and idlers, whose homes are in the neighborhood. A simple lunch is set out here, and also a card table is provided. Here young men and middle-aged men, boys and grey beards congregate at night, to talk vulgar slang, play cards for "the drinks," and smoke and chew—to go home at a late hour with heavy heads and light purses. It is at these places that the youthful San Franciscan Hoodlums are developed.

The second excerpt is the opening of the chapter on hoodlums:
THE Hoodlum had his origin in San Francisco. He is the offspring of San Francisco society. What particular phase in social life possesses the necessary fertility to produce such fruit is not obvious. It is certain, however, that the seed has been sown in productive soil, for the harvest is abundant.
The hoodlum has been called ''a ruffian in embryo." It would be a better definition to call him simply a ruffian. He has all the essential qualities of the villain. He is acquainted with crime in all its forms. The records of vice are his textbooks. He is a free-born American in its widest sense...

If these passages pique your interest, I encourage you to wander on over and read the rest in Lights and Shades, which provides a wonderful window into the world of 1870s-1880s San Francisco (and proved a very useful reference to me for A Dying Note).
"Quad's odds"; (1875) (14755206426)
Beware the hoodlums! (The title of this illustration is, believe it or not, "The Future Presidents." I shall refrain from political comment, difficult though it is...)
I just have to add a coda to this post... The illustration above is from a book titled Quad's Odds by M. Quad (pub date 1875). Here is the text that accompanies the picture:
It requires nerve and courage to be a hoodlum. The boy has got to have the heart of a man, the courage of a lion, and the constitution of an Arab. Only one in a hundred gives him credit for half his worth. No one cares whether he grows fat or starves; whether Fortune lifts him up or casts him down; whether night finds him quarters in a box or a comfortable bed. He's a hoodlum, and hoodlums are generally supposed capable of getting along somehow, the same as a horse turned out to graze. Not one boy in ten can be a hoodlum. Nature never overstocks the market. If left an orphan the average boy dies, or has relatives to care for him, or falls in the way of a philanthropist and comes up a straight-haired young man with a sanctimonious look. The true hoodlum is born to the business. He swallows marbles and thimbles as soon as he can creep, begins to fall down stairs when a year old, and is found in the alley as soon as he can walk.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Killing the canary


Killing the canary sounds like what would happen if one were to bring a small bird into a poorly ventilated mine. However, Passing English of the Victorian Era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase by J. Redding Ware has an entirely different take on the phrase. In fact, I'm guessing that the closer we get to the holidays, the more you'll find folks engaged in the 19th-century definition of this bird-murdering activity.

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Here is the definition:
Killing the canary—Shirking work.
Intrigued, I decided to delve deeper to see if I could figure out how on earth killing a small yellow bird could possibly be equated with lollygagging on the job. I may have found the connection in the same reference work (keep in mind that the slang herein is mostly from the British Isles, with a smattering from U.S. and Australia), in this definition of canary bird:

Canary bird—A sovereign. Canary, as something charming, is often associated with pleasant things that are yellow. 'Yes, it's a canary bird, but it will soon fly away to my landlord. He gets them all!'

Soooo maybe when one kills the canary, one is shirking work and killing the chance of making a gold coin or two (i.e., a sovereign).

What do you think?

Hey, birds... stop slacking and get to work!
See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Buzz


Buzz is another one of those simple slang words that has morphed in meaning over time, in some surprising directions. For instance...

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The following definition from The Rogue's Lexicon—which includes a wonderful example full of other bits of roguish slang—initially caught my eye:
Buzzing—Searching for. "I was in a push and had to buzz about half a glass before I touched a flat's thimble and slang. I fenced the swag for half a century"
What. The. Heck. Does. All. THAT mean?? Luckily for me (and perhaps for you, too), the Lexicon provides a translation immediately following this example:
"I was in a crowd and searched for half an hour before I succeeded in stealing a man's watch and chain, which I sold for fifty dollars."
American Slang: 2nd Edition edited by Robert L. Chapman, has quite a long entry on buzz, with several definitions that are new to me. Here are a few—some familiar, some "new":
  1. Subject of talk; gossip; rumor (by 1605)
  2. To pilfer; rob (by 1812)
  3. To talk; converse (by 1832)
  4. To flatter; court (about 1900)
  5. To call someone on the telephone (about 1910)
  6. A pleasant sense of intoxication (about 1935)
Clearly, buzzing is not limited to the actions of bees...

What's the buzz?
[By Charles Thomas Bingham - "Plate III" in (1897) Hymenoptera, v. I, London: Taylor and Francis, p. fig. 13., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678774]

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Talking turkey

This Thursday is the day in the U.S. when we give thanks and overdose on pumpkin pie and stuffed poultry. Hey, I'm talkin' turkey here. Which brings up the question (in my mind, anyway)... Where did the phrase talking turkey come from? And why turkey, of all things/birds?

Research time!
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According to the 1889 Americanisms, Old and New by Stephen Farmer (which is one of my favorite 19th-century references for old-timey phrases):
To talk turkey—To indulge in grandiloquent periods; to use high-sounding words, when plain English would do equally well or better. An allusion to the manner in which the male bird spreads and plumes itself.
This puzzled me a bit, as I would've defined it more along the lines of what appears in the 1997 The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer:
talk turkey—Speak plainly, get to the point... This expression allegedly comes from a tale about an Indian and a white man who hunted together and divided the game. When the white man said, "I'll take the turkey and you the buzzard, or you take the buzzard and I the turkey," the Indian replied, "Talk turkey to me." Whether or not this tale had a true basis, the term was recorded in its present meaning by about 1840.
So, does this mean that talking turkey could refer to either plain- or fancy-speechifying in the 19th century?? How confusing is that! (Especially for me, since my Silver Rush series is set in the 1880s. What would my poor characters think if one were to say to the other, "Let's talk turkey.")

An exploration of this etymological conundrum appears in an interesting post on the origin of the phrase on the site World Wide Words. The blogger/author, UK's Michael Quinion, notes:
[The phrase is] first recorded in 1824, but is probably much older; one suggestion is that it goes back as far as colonial times. What the explanations have in common is real turkeys.
But the meaning of the phrase seems to have shifted down the years. To start with it meant to speak agreeably, or to say pleasant things; nowadays it usually refers to speaking frankly, discussing hard facts, or getting down to serious business. The change seems to have happened because to "talk turkey" was augmented at some point in the nineteenth century to "talk cold turkey", with the modern meaning. In the course of time it was abbreviated again, with the shorter form keeping the newer meaning. (The other meaning of "cold turkey" is unrelated.)
So, there you go! Now you can talk turkey about talking turkey when you are at the Thanksgiving table.

Talk first, gobble later.
From "A natural history of birds : illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates, curiously engraven from the life v.2." (1734) By Albin, Eleazar; Derham, W. [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Dingbat


Every once in a while I am taken by surprise by a word or phrase that has MANY more interpretations/definitions that I expected.

Such is dingbat.
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First up: Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer (1889), has this to say:
ding-bat—This word seems to be applied to anything that can be thrown with force or dashed violently at another object, from a cannon-ball to the rough's traditional 'arf brick, and from a piece of money to a log of wood. From the Icelandic dengia, to beat.
 Then, we have this, from the Online Etymology Dictionary
dingbat (n.)—1838, American English, apparently originally the name of some kind of alcoholic drink, of unknown origin. It has joined that class of words (such as dingus, doohickey, gadget, gizmo, thingumabob) which are conjured up to supply names for items whose proper names are unknown or not recollected. Used at various periods for "money," "a professional tramp," "a muffin," "male genitalia," "a Chinese," "an Italian," "a woman who is neither your sister nor your mother," and "a foolish person in authority." Popularized in sense of "foolish person" by U.S. TV show "All in the Family" (1971–79), though this usage dates from 1905. In typography, by 1912 as a printer's term for ornament used in headline or with illustrations.
Google goes for contemporary, defining dingbat as "(1) a stupid or eccentric person; (2) a typographical device other than a letter or numeral (such as an asterisk), used to signal divisions in text or to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word." For origins, it adds the following:
mid 19th century (in early use applied to various vaguely specified objects): origin uncertain; perhaps based on obsolete ding ‘to beat, deal heavy blows.’ Sense 1 dates from the early 20th century.
So we're back to the Americanisms definition... as well as a variety of confusing possibilities!

But wait! There's MORE!

In the December 25, 1895, issue of Daily True American, there is a lighthearted article about slang, in which dingbat is used by one young fellow from Yale to describe "one of the prettiest girls I ever saw." (See my screen capture below. You may need to enlarge it or just go directly to this link to the article, which also offers up some other mindboggling slang such as seamuljugating and coostering.

There's a dingbat for you!
Finally, if you want to go completely (ding)batty... take a look at Green's Dictionary of Slang, which has an entire page-plus including the definition "a term of admiration" (from 1895, which lines up nicely with the article above).
More dingbats!!

All in all, way more definitions you can beat with a stick... or a bat.

Thank you, Banksy, for bringing us back to the origin of dingbat.
Graffiti by Banksy, rat with baseball bat, Kentish Town, London. (By Justinc [CC BY-SA 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)






Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Straw vote/poll


This Wednesday is officially "the morning after"—after the U.S. mid-term elections, that is. And whether you are hooting and hollering or sobbing and wailing (or perhaps just quietly celebrating or fuming), you have probably had enough of politicking and pollsters for a while. However, I beg you to bear with me, as I delve into the origin of straw vote (or straw poll).

I wondered when this term originated and what straw had to do with it. 

Well, after a little digging around, I now know—and you will too, if you just keeeeep reading....

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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer has this to say:
straw vote —Also, straw poll: An unofficial vote or poll indicating how people feel about a candidate or issue.* ... This idiom alludes to a straw used to show in what direction the wind blows,** in this case the wind of public opinion.
 As to when this phrase appeared, the dictionary offers a date of circa 1885, with this lovely example from a 1907 O. Henry short story, A Ruler of Men (you can read the story for free here):
A straw vote only shows which way the hot air blows.
As an interesting addendum, the phrase straw in the wind (which is defined as "A slight hint of the future") comes from the same general idea of a straw showing the wind direction. The example given for this phrase: 
The public unrest is a straw in the wind indicating future problems for the regime.
I checked the print date of my copy: 1997. Hmmmm. A little prescient, perhaps?

Next week, no politics; I shall turn an eye upon dingbats....

Hay! Which way is the wind blowing up there? ;-) 
(Haying near New Rochelle by John Henry Dolph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

* I knew that.
** I didn't know that.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Ghouls and Vampires (not what you might think!)


How auspicious that this Wednesday's slang-o-rama post falls on Halloween! However, BEWARE... in the mid-1800s, ghouls and vampires were not the neighborhood kids in costume, demanding treats, nor were they beings from beyond, come to haunt the living...

Noooooooooo. Not even close.

Instead, the 1859 Vocabulum; or The Rogue's Lexicon by George W. Matsell provides these equally scary (but very different) definitions...
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GHOULS. Fellows who watch assignation-houses, and follow females that come out of them to their homes and then threaten to expose them to their husbands, relatives, or friends, if they refuse to give them not only money, but also the use of their bodies. 
VAMPIRE. A man who lives by extorting money from men and women whom they have seen coming out of or going into houses of assignation. 

Boo! ... Can you say "entrapment?"
(Caricature of notorious New Orleans prostitute Emma Johnson, from "The Mascot", 21 May 1892. Johnson is depicted in a window with a fan, with tentacles reaching out to the sidewalk entrapping passers by, including men, an old man, an adolsecent boy, and a young woman. By Staff of "The Mascot", New Orleans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)


So, back then, if a ghoul or vampire were to come knocking at your door, demanding that you (shall we say) "pay up," I'm afraid a chocolate bar or Jolly Roger would not suffice...

Wishing you all a cozy Halloween, with any visitors claiming to be ghouls and vampires restricted to those in costume and preferably under ten years of age.