Want to write the authentic nineteenth century crime novel?
October 28, 2013
Have you ever had a hankering to write a mystery, thriller, or crime novel set back during those wild and wicked days during the middle of the nineteenth century?
Want to make it sound authentic?
I’ll give you a little help.
That’s a lie.
New York City Police Chief George W. Matsell will give you a little help. He is far more qualified than I. He lived it. He battled crime in a tough time in a tough town. He knew the criminals, and he knew what made them tick, and not all of their clocks were the same. But their language was universal to the hard streets.
The chief listened carefully to those scoundrels rounded up and hauled in by police, and he published Vocabulum, or the Rogue’s Lexicon. It is packed with the slang used by criminals, billiard players, brokers, gamblers, fighters, and all-around bad guys who operated at a time when the only thing cheaper than a woman’s body was a man’s life.
It had never been his intention to provide assistance to struggling writers who might come along a hundred and fifty years later. His sole purpose was to help his own police officers crack the code of a criminal’s language, which, he said in his preface, “is calculated to mislead and bewilder, so that rogues might still converse in the presence of an officer, and he be ignorant of what they said.”
Matsell turned the New York police department into a professional organization, and, whether he knew it or not or whether he cared or not, he gave writers a wonderful collection of colorful idioms to use in their own crime novels about a colorful era of law enforcement.
Altitudes: A state of drunkenness; being high
Ambidexter: One who befriends both sides; a lawyer who takes fees from both parties in a suit.
Bag of Nails: Everything in confusion.
Billy Noodle: A soft fellow that believes the girls are all in love with him.
Blue-Plum: A bullet; “Surfeit the bloke with blue-plum,” shoot him.
Bread-bag: The stomach. [Also: Middle-Piece; Victualizing Office.]
Bun: A fellow that can not be shaken off.
Chatty-feeder: A spoon. [Also, Feeders: Silver spoons or forks. “Nap the feeders,” steal the spoons. Smash-feeder: A silver spoon.]
Cutty-eyed: To look out of the corner of the eyes; to look suspicious; to leer; to look askance. “The copper cutty-eyed us,” the officer looked suspicious at us.
Daisyville: The country.
Dry-up: Be silent; stop that.
Flay: To vomit. (Also “hash.”)
Flicker: To drink. “Flicker with me,” drink with me.
Forks: The fore and middle fingers.
Foxing: To pretend to be asleep.
Gapeseed: Wonderful stories; any thing that will cause people to stop, look, or listen.
Goosecup: A silly fellow; a fool.
Heavers: Persons in love.
Hubub: Pain in the stomach.
Idea-pot: A man’s head.
Ivy bush: A very small-faced man who has a large quantity of hair on his face and head.
Kate: A smart, brazen-faced woman.
Kitchen Physic: Food. “A little kitchen physic will set me up.” I have more need of a cook than a doctor.
Lenten: Nothing to eat; starving.
Low Tide: Very little money left.
Lumberer: Pawn broker.
Lushington: Drunken men.
Miller: A fighter.
Moon-Eyed Hen: Squinting prostitute
New Light: New money
Out-and-Out: A spree; a frolic.
Pap lap: An infant. “He is but a pap lap,” he is but a baby.
Peery: Suspicious. “The bloke’s peery,” the man suspects something. “There’s a peery, ‘tis snitch,” we are observed, nothing can be done.
Philistines: police officers.
Pig Together: Sleep together, two or more in a bed.
Rabbit: A rowdy.
Rainy Day: Day of sickness.
Prospecting: Looking for something to steal.
Quails-Pipe: Woman’s tongue.
Rag-Water: Intoxicating liquor of all kinds. If frequently taken to excess, will reduce any person to rages.
Red Rag: The tongue. “Shut your potato-trap and given the red rag a holiday,” shut your mouth and let your tongue rest.
Rib: Cross, ill-natured wife.
Sluice your gob: Take a good long drink.
Squeaker: A child.
Tooth-Music: Chewing food with a good appetite.