Simanaitis Says

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A BOOK on slang may seem like a contradiction in terms. Slang is ephemeral; books are lasting, or used to be thought so.

On the other hand, historical slang is entertaining. What was once neat-o, hep or gear may be meh or worse today, but its linguistic heritage can be fun. I offer three books of underworld slang here.


A Dictionary of the Underworld, British & American, by Eric Partridge, Bonanza Books, 1949, reprinted with addenda 1961.

Eric Partridge, 1894-1979, was a New Zealand-British lexicographer with special expertise in slang. He assembled several dictionaries, this one definitively subtitled, “Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Traffic, The White Slave Traffic, Spivs.”

A spiv, notes Partridge citing author Axel Bracey, 1934, is a “Petty crook who will turn his hand to anything so long as it does not involve honest work.” Partridge believes the word may come from the Welsh Gypsy “spilav,” meaning “to push.”

Meanings transform over time. The word “cooler” has meant a lockup since the 1880s, a place where “one cooled one’s heels.” But way back in 1698, it was slang for a woman of less than unsullied repute; “by yielding to one’s ardour, she cools it.”

In the 1890s, a “snow-bird” was someone using cocaine. This usage persisted well into the last century. But, some years back, it got transformed—and cleaned up—to mean a bi-regional resident seeking a temperate winter climate.


Straight From the Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang, by Max Décharné, No Exit Press, 2000, revised and updated 2009.

Max Décharné was the drummer for Gallon Drunk and his own band, The Flaming Stars, as well as author of several books focusing on the middle years of the last century. A flavor of this dictionary comes from its subtitle, “More Entries, More Pictures, More Juice, More Jive… Hotter Than a Two-Dollar Pistol—This Baby Will Fry Your Wig.”


Pulp fiction titles decorate the inside covers of Straight From the Fridge, Dad.

Décharné’s earliest entries are from the turn of the century—that old century turn, not the one only 13 years ago. Most date from post-World War II, many from the music, film and pulp fiction of the era.


Killers Don’t Care, by Rod Callahan, 1950. Note this was a British edition. Décharné traces the term “Snatch Racket,” as in kidnapping, to another pulp fiction, Gun Business, by Grierson Dickson, 1935. Image from Straight From the Fridge, Dad.

The title phrase “Straight from the Fridge” comes from the film, Beat Girl, 1960, “really cool.” In turn, Décharné characterizes “cool” as “1. In the know, A-ok, hep, 2. Unworried, calm, relaxed.” He recognizes its appearance in the 1924 presidential campaign, “Keep Cool with Coolidge” and also a jazz recording that same year by the Georgia Melodians, “How You Gonna Keep Kool?”


The Underground Dictionary, (Japanese title: America Vulgar Language Dictionary) by Eugene E. Landy, Ph.D., translated and re-edited by Katsuaki Horiuchi, Kenkyusha Ltd., 1975.

In both Japanese and English, the editors stress the challenges in matching American slang with its nearest Japanese equivalent. Though their work predates the term, “crowd-sourcing” describes the methodology. For instance, more than 7000 Japanese students provided the Japanese underground slang. The dictionary includes English definitions of the terms as well as those in Japanese.


I knew of the rock group Jefferson Airplane. Mug that I was, I didn’t know its etymology. Pages from The Underground Dictionary.

The range of slang in The Underground Dictionary is wide. “Goody two-shoes,” for instance, is characterized by “being overly sincere, understanding, forgiving, pure (to an obnoxious extent).” At the dictionary’s other extreme, there is a wealth of street talk for actions rarely attempted by any goody two-shoes I’ve known.

There’s also a Supplement of British Slang, useful to those watching BBC imports. “Bollocks! That banger was on the never-never and now it got nicked.”

Or, to bring matters full circle, the Underground Dictionary includes “spivvy,” as in “dressed in a sharp, flashy way. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013


  1. Bill Urban
    September 25, 2013

    And here all these years I’ve been trying to look spiffy.

  2. carmacarcounselor
    October 23, 2013

    The one that completely stymied me was the British, “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.” “Crackers,” I got – crazy. The rest may as well be Greek.

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