Dictionaries, Part II

If you love words, you love dictionaries.

One of my favorite dictionaries is the Dictionary of American Slang. The first was published in 1960 by Thomas Y. Crowell Company in New York. It was 10 years in preparation. Dr. Harold Wentworth compiled it, filling it mainly with regionalisms and colloquialisms. Stuart Berg Flexner then added words from the prohibition era, the underworld, jazz, the armed forces, business, politics, entertainment, teenagers, and the Beat Generation.

The publisher’s note indicates that he also added “those derogatory and taboo words that form a significant part of everyday speech, and which, although they appear with increasing frequency in current writing, seldom find their way into standard dictionaries.”

The copy I have is a review copy with review slip that is the first printing of the 1967 revised edition. In it Flexner accumulated a significant body of new slang words which were added as a supplement.

Dictionary of American Slang

Dictionary of American Slang

This book is an entertaining read as well as being useful and educational. Let’s look at some slang.

An airedale is a breed of dog, but in slang it means an ugly, ill-mannered, uncouth, or boring man or youth. Did not know that.

When I think of a biddy, it’s usually preceded by the word old, but in the Dictionary of American slang, the first two definitions are for an Irish servant girl and an Irishwoman. The third is any maid or housekeeper. The fourth is a woman, especially an old, gossipy woman. That’s the definition I know.

Everyone knows a cat lick is a Catholic, right?

Remember George Carlin’s the hippy dippy weather man routine? Then you already know dippy means crazy, foolish, not sensible.

Did you know Ed is a square, one who is not hip? I thought that was Herbert.

Fag means both a cigarette, dating from 1915, and a male homosexual.

Any bookseller worth their salt knows that a gin mill is any cheap saloon, bar, or nightclub.

Hawk means to clear one’s throat or spit, as in hawk a loogie.

An Irish banjo is a shovel. Seems as if there are a lot of slang words having to do with the Irish. I don’t think this will please my Irish mother.

I would never have thought that jumbo, meaning large, is a slang word.

Same with kook, an odd, eccentric, disliked person.

Lagniappe is one of my favorite words. It means something given for nothing or a gift with purchase.

Perhaps you knew that a mechanic is an expert card player or card dealer.

Nifty dates back to 1865, meaning stylish, neat, smart, attractive. It’s been around so long I thought it was a “regular” word.

I would think that everyone knows that an outside chance is a remote possibility.

Palooka can be spelled paluka or palooker, but they all mean an inferior or average prize fighter. They can also refer to a wrestler, any stupid or mediocre person, an oafish hoodlum, or a worthless hand in poker or bridge.

Anybody know what a quickie is? Wait just a minute. First usage is a single, quickly drunk drink of whisky. Second is a short, fast act of sexual intercourse, but it also means a movie quickly and cheaply made, and a wildcat strike.

When referred to as a vegetable a radish isn’t slang, but when it refers to a baseball it is.

A smidgen is a small amount. It’s been in use as a colloquialism since 1845.

Tinkle when a noun is a phone call. When it’s a verb, it means to urinate. Be careful how you use it.

You probably know that being up the river means being in prison, but did you know that it comes from Sing Sing Prison which is up the Hudson River from New York?

Ever drink varnish remover? You have, if you’ve had strong coffee, or inferior whisky.

If you were World War I you would know that a whiz-bang is a high-velocity antipersonnel shrapnel shell, but it also means a mixture of morphine and cocaine, anything remarkable, and a joke.

X out means to delete or to cancel. You knew that.

But did you know that a yard is $100?

Zing means both vitality and a veto, blackball, or vote against something.




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3 responses to “Dictionaries, Part II

  1. What a great post. I love dictionaries, too, though they do not always prevent me from mangling the language. Is there a bibliographic reference tool that will help decode the printing data for Merriam, besides the McBride? Thanks!

    • First, thanks so much for reading my blog. It’s always nice to connect with someone. And you’re right. Dictionaries don’t stop anyone from mangling the language, although imperfections make us more interesting. As for your question, I’m afraid I’ve come up empty. I wish I could be of more help. Despite not being able to help this time, I hope you will continue to read the blog, and I hope t hear from you again. Jim

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