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Crime stories from the 1930s are filled with all sorts of colourful street slang, whether you're reading a pulp fiction mystery by Dashiell Hammett or watching a film noir classic like The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man. While some of the slang has seeped into the modern vernacular (dame, babe, grifter), there is a lot of usage that can be puzzling to the modern reader. Maybe you want to figure out what it means when a character says, 'Let's have a look-see where the twist flops'. Maybe your impression of Humphrey Bogart or Edward G Robinson is just a little flat. Or maybe you just want the words to match your tough guy look and battered fedora. If so, this entry's for you.
This entry is designed to give all you palookas the low-down on such talk, so you won't be daunted by some of the language you encounter. This entry is just a basic introduction, and people looking for a definitive guide are encouraged to check out Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hard Boiled Slang online. Remember, a lot of this language comes from a different time, when America was suffering through its Great Depression, fighting rising crime, enforcing Prohibition, and becoming a melting pot for immigrants from many different nations and languages. It may seem a bit crude and overly dramatic, but hard boiled fiction was trying to capture the true gritty nature of crime in the big cities.
Common Terms and Phrases
It wouldn't be 'hard boiled'1 without the crime. Hence, a lot of the film noir slang describes crime and other unsavory aspects of the criminal underworld. For convenience, the terms have been grouped into loose categories (not alphabetically). This should make it easier to remember, and it is useful because many authors like to use several different slang terms for the same item2.
Crime and Criminals
There are all sorts of criminals on the streets of the big city, but it's usually mostly the organized ones that are described in pulp fiction. A large criminal organization is usually headed by a 'boss' with several trusted 'lieutenants'. They often will have hired gunmen and other tough guys, which may be called 'brunos', 'goons', 'hatchetmen', 'torpedoes' and 'trigger men'. In addition, hired killers may also be called 'droppers' or 'button men'. Some organizations can be quite large, but a lot can be done by only a single man with a few hired guns. Sometimes, large organizations will also involve book-making operations, speak easies, lotteries, or other criminal operations. This can attract 'grifters', criminals that work by gaining the confidence of victim (called the 'mark' or 'sucker') and swindling them out of money. A woman who uses sex to do a con job is also called a 'worker'. Most grifters work alone, but some can be associated with a 'clip joint', a nightclub or gambling joint where the patrons get flimflammed. Some crimes also involve a safe cracker, of which there are several types. A 'can opener' or 'yegg' can only open cheap safes, and a 'Peterman' uses nitroglycerine (aka 'soup'). A 'fence' resells stolen goods.
Policemen and Detectives
If there is one thing any good criminal fears, it's the police. When your inside man flashes you a 'buzzer' (police badge), it means the jig's up. More dangerous than the coppers on the beat, though, are the detectives. Sometimes called a 'dick', 'shamus', 'gumshoe' or 'flatfoot', the detective is the true hero of the story, unravelling the hairiest schemes and bringing bad guys to justice. Most noir detectives are privately hired investigators (working for a client and not the police) and are thus able to solve crimes in more unconventional ways but they are also potentially more corrupt (a lot seem to have drinking problems and their own history with the law). When a criminal is caught, he's usually due for time in 'the big house' or 'hoosegow', both terms for prison if it's not named explicitly (eg, Alcatraz, Rikers Island). Usually justice is served, but sometimes a 'patsy' takes the 'rap' (an innocent man is framed for a criminal charge). This is also known as 'taking the fall'. Sometimes, a prison sentence can be avoided if one is willing to implicate others involved in the crime, but being such a 'stool pigeon' is invariably fatal, as nobody likes a 'snitch'.
Violence is the true language of crime, but hard-boiled slang still has a lot of words for it. Typically, a detective will find himself threatened at first with a beating by some all-too-willing 'trouble boys'. He may also be questioned forcefully, a technique known as being 'given the third degree' or 'putting the screws on somebody'. Giving someone 'the bum's rush' is to show them the door, while a 'red-light' is a forceful ejection from an automobile (which itself could be called a 'boiler', 'bucket' and 'flivver'). A 'blackjack' or 'sap' is a small leather strap filled with metal used to quickly knock someone out. A knife might be called a 'shiv' or a 'sticker'. These sometimes send the message, but any gang that wants to command respect will be carrying firearms. Guns are everywhere in pulp fiction, and there are thus a lot of words to describe them. A gun can be a 'bean-shooter', 'gat', 'rod', or 'roscoe'. The act of carrying firearms can also be described as 'packing heat' or 'wearing iron'. Shooting someone is also known as 'drilling' or 'plugging', or by the more evocative phrases 'squirting metal', 'throwing lead', 'giving someone lead poisoning' or 'filling someone with daylight' (ie, by putting holes in them). After that, the chump usually winds up in a 'Chicago overcoat' (coffin), and hopefully people get the message you are not to be messed with.
Although most criminals are usually men, women often appear in noir fiction, usually in form of a sarcastic secretary, a mysterious client for the detective, or a sultry nightclub singer. Not surprisingly, there are a fair number of terms for women, often somewhat degrading3. A woman could be called a 'babe', 'broad', 'dame', 'doll', 'frail' or 'twist', among other terms. A really attractive women might be termed a 'dish', 'looker', or 'tomato'. Surprisingly, legs are the most cherished aspect of beauty in noir fiction4. So a woman's legs may be called 'gams', 'getaway sticks' or 'pins'. A person who is 'dizzy with a dame' is very much in love with a woman, sometimes at great risk to themselves, especially if she's someone else's moll.
Liquor and Drugs
Life is cheap on the streets, and many turn to drink to drown their sorrows. Alcohol in general is sometimes called 'booze', 'giggle juice' or 'hooch'. Sometimes, alcohol is referred to explicitly in slang, often as what it is made from (eg, 'rye' for rye whiskey or 'corn' for bourbon) or other distinctive properties (gin is sometimes called 'white'). During Prohibition5, most alcohol was made in back rooms and subsequently of low quality, hence there are references to 'rotgut' and 'bathtub gin'. This cheap liquor was often sold in a 'speak easy', a bar disguised as something else (or hidden behind an unmarked door). The act of drinking may be referred to as 'having a sniff from the bottle', 'nibbling one', or 'tipping a few'. Marijuana was known as 'juju', 'mesca', 'muggles', and 'reefer'. Other drugs are not as common in literature, but become more prominent in post-war fiction, when servicemen returned from the war as 'hop-heads' addicted to heroin. Cocaine is also sometimes referred to as 'nose candy'.
Other Miscellaneous Phrases
There are a few other colourful phrases that can pop up in hard boiled slang. 'Taking a powder' means to leave, in an allusion to women leaving to adjust their makeup. 'Bumping gums' is to talk about nothing useful, and a 'trip for biscuits' is a task that yields nothing useful. Having the 'bulge' on someone means you have the advantage. A 'Chinese angle' is an unusual perspective on a situation that reveals a different insight.