Published Aug. 31, 2012
I enjoy browsing through dictionaries — the print kind, not computerized versions. I love the look, feel and smell of books, especially those made before Glossy took over the print world. It seems that books made before 1970 were heftier and featured more ornamental Roman fonts than the simpler sans serif lettering often seen nowadays.
Lately I’ve been browsing “Dictionary of American Slang,” compiled and edited by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner, the first edition published in 1960. I enjoy opening pages at random and exploring our culture via words and phrases, such as “house larry,” “A man who frequents a retail store without buying” (1952). The phrase was used by clothing salesmen, according to the editors. Many words and phrases are still in use and familiar to we denizens of the 21st century, but “house larry” was new to me. I suppose it was an arcane term used by those annoyed salesmen and perhaps not known outside the industry. I like to search the slang dictionary for other unusual phrases, and here are a few more.
Blotto: drunk, especially unconscious from drink. I’m not sure that this is rare, but when I first heard it, as the title of a Laurel and Hardy short, it was new to me. In the film, set during Prohibition, Stan’s wife pours out their illegal bottle of booze and fills the bottle with nonintoxicating substitutes, but Stan and Ollie get drunk as they drink thinking they are drinking alcohol, until the missus informs them of her deed, sobering them quickly.
Ash-cat: a locomotive fireman, railroad use. That’s all it says. I wish I knew more. I would also like to know how a cigarette came to be called a “brain tablet.”
Brag-rags are “ribbons representing military decorations and campaign medals.”
Eighty-two is a glass of water or a request for a glass of water. Our editors say it saw lunch counter use in relaying a customer’s request, fairly common since circa 1950.
Freak was a rare word meaning Coca Cola and orange flavoring. Freckles is tobacco for rolling cigarettes, so named for its appearance, the term used by World War II sailors and Marines. Frisgig, or frizgig, is a silly girl or woman and was never common. Another word with a mystery origin.
Press the bricks: to loaf in town, to stand loafing in the street. I like this one. I can see people pressing the bricks in downtown Alliance or Canton. This is a good example of the vivid pictures that a colorful slang term can conjure.
Not on your tintype: no, emphatically no, common around 1900 and replaced by “not on your life.”
In the appendix the compilers list what they call omnibus terms, which they define as words that mean “it,” especially to replace a momentarily forgotten word or a technical term. We’ve all used words like these: here’s a selection from the list: caboodle, do-hinky, doohickey, doowhistle, gilhickey, gismo, googol, hickeymadoodle, jigamaree, larry (is this related to that guy who doesn’t buy anything?), thingamabob, thingamajig, and wingdoodle.
A string-whanger was a guitarist, and a horse piano is a calliope, a keyboard instrument powered by steam or compressed air, such as heard at circuses, although I always think of the steam calliope on the riverboat Delta Queen.
I’ll close with yard goat, a railroad switching engine, also called a yardpig.
- American Indians
- C. History
- Civil War
- D. Books
- E. Clothing
- Historical Clothing
- Historical Festivals
- Musical Instruments
- Ohio History
- Old West
- Revolutionary War
- World War II