A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Traffic, The White Slave Traffic, Spivs by Eric Partridge. Bonanza Books, 1961.

underworld Sarah: My parents are downsizing, so every once in a while they’ll say, “If there’s anything you want, make sure you ask for it.” So I said, “I want A Dictionary of the Underworld.”
G: I’ve got to do the creepy thing. (Sniffs book.) It doesn’t actually smell, but it looks like it would smell.
S: It’s old enough that it should.
G: How old is it?
S: First published in 1949, reprinted with new addenda 1961.G: It’s still got the dust jacket!  (opens the book randomly) “White slave traffic”? Not “slave traffic”, but “white slave traffic.”
S: It was one of my favorite lines in Archer, when somebody mentioned white slave traffic and Lana says “Don’t qualify it.”
G: I don’t like the phrase “white trash” either, why isn’t it just “trash”?
S: “White slave traffic” doesn’t mean “slave traffic”, it means prostitution. So when white people are enslaved, it’s prostitution, when black people are enslaved it’s just slavery. So nobody cares about black prostitutes. It’s pretty horrible.
Anyway, this is by a guy who’s super into words and read a huge amount of not just books about words but books in general about lowlifes. He’s written all sorts of slang dictionaries. This one is just underworld and criminal slang. So there’s tons of stuff…
G: “Cross, n. ‘Illegal or dishonest practices in general are called the cross, in opposition to the square’: 1812, J.H. Vaux”
S: He cites all his sources! I was looking for tramp slang, which is a precursor to hobo slang, and there’s tons of great 1930s hobo slang but hobos were around much earlier than that. There’re books on 1901 hobo slang. Because he cites his sources, I was able to find the original book, written by a British guy who lived with hobos for a while.
G: Are hobos American?
S: There are also hobos in Britain, but they’re slightly different, so he also lived with British hobos.
G: Are they called “hobos” there?
S: They might just be called “tramps”.
G: So “tramp stamp” originally had a very different meaning?
S: (laughs)

G: What’s a “dingboy”?
S: This book is great, because you can flip it open to any page and ask, “What does that mean?” Some of this slang goes back to the 1600s. Yet sometimes you’ll come across a word and think, “That’s not what that means now.” The weirdest slang in here may be Australian, though South African slang may be even weirder.
G: “Duck the nut”, meaning to hide.
S: “Clean the fish”! “Gink”! “Hophead”! This book came in handy while I was reading Dashiell Hammett. I had this open on my table on the H section. There’s all this 1930s slang about opium and morphine. Hammett mention this guy was a “hophead”, an opium or morphine addict. And if someone was “on the hip”, they were on opium, as you would have been lying on your side to smoke it. One suspect couldn’t have committed the murder, because he was upstairs on the hip. And I knew what that meant!
G: “Butt peddler”! I don’t think we need to read the definition for that one. “His nibs”!
S: This book is amazing and wonderful and I have no idea if it’s still in print.
G: OK, a random page. “Right”! “Righty is a tramp or a hobo.”
S: No, keep reading! “A righty is a tramp or a hobo train rider that has lost his right arm and leg.” So you call him Righty. (laughs) Similarly Squinty or Blinky. Or call him Stretch if he’s short.
G: “Rinse-pitcher”.
S: “cf toss-pott”
G: “Rim up, to support or assist.” But “rim” means to bugger a woman.
S: Yeah, that word is differently specific nowadays.
G: Let’s not get into that.
S: Bring it with you when you time travel, or whenever you read old books.

2 thoughts on “Spivspeak

  1. OH MAH GAWWWD! Ok, quick story. Picture it: ~2004, Glendale, CA (sorry, I’ve been watching Golden Girls). My parents came up from Orange County to see me and take me to lunch. I say sure, but I’m a little down throughout the excellent Chinese meal. They ask what’s up, and tell them that Ray Bradbury is signing down the street at the little bookstore we passed on the way there, but I had found out about it only after making the plans with them. My parents being so wonderful, they immediately call for the check and we hustle down the street. I get in line at the back of the store while my mom wanders the store and my dad enjoys the sunshine from a bench outside. Mom comes wandering back over to me with a small stack of books, about to hand them over the top of a half-height bookcase, and my eye is caught by the title displayed between us. It’s the paperback edition of Dictionary of the Underworld (this was the one with the black cover, white and blue? writing). I immediately grab it and start rifling through it, at which point my mom trades me her stack of books for my single volume, she dashes up to the register, and gets back to me just as I reach the signing table. Suffice to say, after signing the books with his name actually on them, Mr. Bradbury looked confusedly at his assistant (I was too awe-stuck to utter more than meaningless drivel, with a side of drool), and she simply states, “she knows it’s not yours, she just wants you to sign it.” AND HE DID.

    BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Later that year, I’m getting ready to meet my brother and his girlfriend (now wife) at the LA Times Festival of Books. Knowing I didn’t have ANY cash to buy books (I didn’t even have a car at the time), I grabbed the only thing I could think of: The Dictionary of the Underworld, with Ray Bradbury’s proud scrawl on the title page. If not for that initial signature, I don’t think I would have been able to convince so many authors to sign my book. :D

    (as a side-note, the following two years I attended the Festival, I took Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, parts one and two, respectively, which resulted in not just signatures, but also random drawings from the participants)


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