Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


HERE’S HOW TO know when you’re a hep-ghee (sophisticated individual) and counter the lamentable trend of 140-character missives, all through a study of English language usage from the 1950 Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo, again.

No doubt, you’ve already pegged that this opening sentence would have been Twitter-rejected for excess length or require delivery as two successive Tweets. (So inelegant.)


Dictionary of American underworld lingo, by Hyman E. Goldin, Frank O’Leary and Morris Lipsius, Twayne Publishers, 1950.

Here are several examples of a proper ghee’s lingo.

Makin’s versus Tailor-made. Both of these have to do with cigarettes, the distinction being whether you twist one yourself or buy the cigarette already formed, i.e. tailor-made. Makin’s included little rectangles of cigarette paper, already cut to size, and a pouch of tobacco, typically secured with a little string containing the product’s tax-paid tag.


Smoking tobacco from R.J. Reynolds. Image from

Which reminds me of a math puzzle: A seedy old college professor supported his smoking habit by purchasing only the paper and collecting the tobacco from discarded cigarette butts. In twisting his own, he found that it required seven butts to form a new cigarette.

One day, he collected 49 butts. How many cigarettes would he realize from this day’s collection?

Please keep your eyes on your own (cigarette?) paper.

Airedale. As its canine origin suggests, an airedale is a ghee who shows fawning loyalty. I confess I don’t know dog breeds well enough to understand why the airedale was chosen and not, for example, the cocker spaniel. I do know cats well enough to recognize why feline terms never entered the lingo in this context.

Riding the Rods. During the Great Depression, those in need of transportation were known to hop aboard a stationary or slow-moving freight train and travel illicitly on the understructure of a railcar. This riding the rods had plenty of hazards, among them encounters with railroad bulls.

On the other hand, railroad brakemen were not unsympathetic to the rod-riders’ plight, especially when offered renumeration for looking the other way. Riding on the green described this practice.

Riding on the red was an option with political overtones. A rod-rider could get free travel by showing the railroad brakeman an I.W.W. membership card in lieu of money.


I.W.W. card. Image from Maksim/Wikipedia Commons.

The Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies, was (and remains to this day) an organization intent on being “One Big Union.” Founded in Chicago in 1905, the organization attracted many miners and lumbermen of the American west, especially those with socialist leanings. Eugene V. Debs, for example, was a founding member.

The I.W.W. opposed the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 and a competing union of the era. The Wobblies were generally unskilled laborers, as opposed to the A.F.L.’s organizing by skilled crafts.

On the other hand, the I.W.W. was the sole American union of the era that welcomed women, immigrants, African Americans and Asians. By August 1917, it reached a membership peak of more than 150,000. However, its syndicalist belief of concentrating ownership and management solely in the hands of the workers was considered too radical by many. Detractors said I.W.W. stood for “I Won’t Work.”

The U.S. Communist Party made an unsuccessful attempt to dominate the Wobblies’ One Big Union concept. I.W.W. membership declined in the 1920s; by 1930, it was around 10,000. However, according to Wikipedia, I.W.W. goals attracted names that might be familiar, among them ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin; linguist/activist Noam Chomsky; folk singer Joe Hill; Helen Keller; Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota Governor, 1931–1936; and playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Look for the Union Label.

Civil unrest of the 1960s gave the organization a second wind on university campuses. I.W.W. labor activities since then have involved, not without controversy, the likes of Borders Books, MacDonalds and Starbucks.


This 1911 bluegrass ballad honoring I.W.W. orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was composed by folk singer Joe Hill, 1879–1915.

The term pie in the sky entered our language as a lyric in Joe Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave. And it was a knowledgeable rider of the rods who flashed his I.W.W. card so he could “ride on the red.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: