Maybe We Can Eventually Make Language A Complete Impediment To Understanding.
August 8, 2011 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on a comic that's a parody of detective noir comics. I want the most obscure, antiquated, and obfuscating slang from early 20th century America.

The plan is for this to read like Cockney to the uninitiated. The dialogue by itself would be unintelligible. I'm not worried about linguistic anachronism, though something like, "moon shot," that would date it too specifically might be a problem.

I know I've seen much better lists than I've found googling, and probably somewhere in the Metas, but both lists and top-of-the-head answers are welcome.
posted by cmoj to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A vacapinta blast from the past.
posted by zamboni at 7:45 PM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: Read the "Slang of the Early Gangsters" annex of The Gangs of New York (1928). Long out of print, you can find a used copy of the movie tie-in edition (sigh). The book covers Manhattan from the Civil War to about the 1920s and is a colorful work of non-fiction. Some examples quickly typed from my copy:

bat: a prostitute who walks the streets only at night/
brass: money.
crusher: a policeman.
kirkbuzzer: a thief who picks pockets in church.
moll: a woman.
screw: a key (screwsman, a thief good with keys/locks).
tombstones: teeth.
yam: to eat

...and six more pages.
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:47 PM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: Here's a Glossary of Hardboiled Slang.
posted by peagood at 7:54 PM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: If you're interested in hard copy and/or Kindle, The Big Con and Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century may have what you're looking for. I picked up the second book on the cheap at Half Price last year.
posted by immlass at 8:01 PM on August 8, 2011

You'll want to look up The Big Con, by David Maurer. Written in the 1940s, it's a linguistic (and thereby by necessity historical and social) account of the argot of con men and grifters from 1900 onward. You'll learn how a roper like Yellow Kid Weil could have multiple marks on the send when he ran the Rag.
posted by Diablevert at 8:03 PM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: The Flapper's Dictionary
1950s hipster slang - much of it actually originated from earlier in the century
posted by fuse theorem at 8:28 PM on August 8, 2011

I came in to recommend Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers, but immlass beat me to it. Fantastic for this sort of thing.
posted by knile at 1:12 AM on August 9, 2011

Best answer: I was recently reading a newspaper article from 1920 and had to look up a few words like; octoroon, mulct, vamp(not the current definition). You could pick up a lot by reading through newspaper archives of the time.
posted by JJ86 at 7:21 AM on August 9, 2011

Response by poster: Perfect! All of it!
posted by cmoj at 9:53 AM on August 9, 2011

Although it was published back in 1859 (by an NYC police commisioner), you may find The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum or the Rogue's Lexicon useful.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 3:31 AM on August 12, 2011

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