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BUZZFEED: Slangs Of New York: 19th Century Vocab Worth Bringing Back

From our partners at Buzzfeed: Ever think our modern slang leaves a little something something to be desired? Between LOL-worthy emoticons and obvs totes irritating abbreviations, sometimes it doesn’t seem like our generation is really adding much to the English language (sorry about making “Googling” a verb, future generations!). Then again, we don’t even have to come up with anything new—not when we can just re-appropriate some now-forgotten 19th century gems!

Inspired by BBC America’s Copper, a gripping new cop-drama series set in 1860s New York City from Academy Award®-winner Barry Levinson and Emmy® Award-winner Tom Fontana, we decided to look into some of the more interesting turns of phrase used by many New Yorkers of the time. And were they ever creative with their cussing.

We came across the excellent “Vocabulum, Or, The Rogue’s Lexicon: Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources,” an 1859 volume of gangster slang written by George W. Matsell, the Special Justice and Chief of the New York Police at the time, for the “National Police Gazette.” And damn if those Bens of New York’s old underworld didn’t know how to turn a phrase. We’re totally going to be using these words. For example, what lady wouldn’t like to called a “shakester?” As in “check out that the fine shakester over there.”

Lots of words and phrases in the book still have the same meaning—a “crib” was a person’s home then too, the police have always been “pigs“—but there are quite a few whose meanings have slightly shifted as well: To “break a leg” then wasn’t something you said to an actor about to go on stage—it was what you called seducing a girl (which is why, we guess, mothers of children born out of wedlock were called “ankle” and “broken leg“). And while to “croak” still meant to die, newspapers at the time were also called “croakers.”

Another example: Thanks to Mario Puzo most of us think of a “Godfather” as the head of a mob, or the “mobility” in 1859 talk, but back then they were something entirely different. Godfathers were “jurymen; so called because they name the degrees of crime as to grand or petit larceny, etc., etc.”

Here are some phrases we’d like to see make a comeback.

  • Corinthian Bad women who move in respectable society
    Usage: “Before folks caught on, Paris Hilton was a total Corinthian.”
  • Diddle Cove A landlord
    Usage: “My stupid Diddle Cove won’t let me make copies of my housekey.”
  • D.I.O. Damn it, I’m off!
    Usage: Use online as a replacement for the well-worn TTFN and TTYL.
  • Mondongo Filthy; full of stench, it stinks beyond the power of endurence [sic]
    Usage: “The cat box is seriously mondongo, man. You gotta clean that up.”
  • Nimenog A very silly fellow.
    Usage: “The kids at Improv Everywhere are a bunch of nimenogs.”
  • Scroof To live with a friend, and at his expense.
    Usage: “My buddy Oliver has been scroofing at my place since his girlfriend kicked him out—and I don’t know how to ask him to leave!”

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