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A Gotham Glossary

June 2024
1min read

The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech

by Irving Lewis Alien, Oxford University Press, 307 pages

Before half the country moved to the suburbs, the great engine of slang creation was the American city, especially New York. So argues the sociologist Irving Lewis Alien in his history of our street talk. Slang dictionaries over the years have presented popular speech alphabetically; this book is organized around themes that cover the urbanizing years from 1850 to 1950. Speakeasy , for instance, appears in an overall chapter on “The Sporting Life,” along with derivations for taxi dancers and piker joints . There are sections full of terms for restaurants, tall buildings ( cloud-supporter rightly lost out to skyscraper ), mean streets, and social types, and lists of epithets the rich and the working class have had for each other, including dinner pailer and Fifth Avenoodles .

Some of the best old words have to do with bars: A growler was a two-quart can of beer taken out. Young boys and girls were hired by saloons to “rush the growler” or “chase the can” to the customer ordering from home. The book ends with a discussion of modern suburbia. “—Urban,—” Alien laments, “has emerged as a codeword” for “congestion, dirt, violence in the streets,” instead of mere vice, culture, and sophistication. It’s shorter on pungent words than H. L. Mencken’s classic dictionary, but The City in Slang is well worth having.

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