Crooks’ names from Dashiell Hammett

July 21, 2013

Dashiell Hammett tells tight, twisty detective tales with colourful casts and propulsive plots, but half the fun of reading him comes from the language itself: the wisecracks, the tough talk, the economical detail.

Dashiell Hammett - The Big Knockover and Other Stories - book coverThe title story in his collection The Big Knockover has a huge cast of criminals, crooks, and assorted no-goodniks, many with stereotypical nicknames. Here’s 30 or so, some with additional description from Hammett:

Red O’Leary

The Shivering Kid

Itchy Maker

Darby M’Laughlin

Happy Jim Hacker, round and rosy Detroit gunman twice sentenced to death and twice pardoned

Alphabet Shorty McCoy

Donkey Marr, the last of the bow-legged Marrs

Rumdum Smith

Lefty Read

Toots Salda, the strongest man in crookdom

Sylvia Yount

The Dis-and-Dat Kid

Bernie Bernheimer, alias the Motsa Kid

Sheeny Holmes

Snohomish Shitey

Bluepoint Vance

L. A. Slim, from Denver, sockless and underwearless as usual

Spider Girrucci

Old Pete Best, once a congressman

Fat Boy Clarke

Red Cudahy

Pogy Reeve

Tom Brooks, who invented the Richmond razzle-dazzle and bought three hotels with the profits

Big Flora Brace

Nancy Regan

Denny Burke, Baltimore’s King of Frog Island

Bull McGonickle, still pale from fifteen years in Joliet

Johnny the Plumber

Paddy the Mex, an amiable conman who looked like the King of Spain

Paperbox-John Cardigan

Angel Grace Cardigan

Toby the Lugs, who used to brag about picking President Wilson’s pocket in a Washington vaudeville theatre

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Alphabet Shorty McCoy offers two nicknames for the price of one. I don’t know if he got both at the same time or was just Shorty McCoy for a while first.

Hammett himself went to jail for a while. His long-time partner Lillian Hellman tells the story in the book’s fine introduction.


The celestial aspirate of Mister Lem

March 8, 2013

Stanisław Lem, in The Star Diaries, has an amusing inversion of our custom on Earth of adding more and more letters and titles to our names as we gain academic and other distinctions.

From “The Thirteenth Voyage”:

My object, when I set out from Earth, was to reach an extremely remote planet of the Crab constellation, Fatamiasma, known throughout space as the birthplace of one of the most distinguished individuals in our Universe, Master Oh. This is not the real name of that illustrious sage, but they refer to him thus, for it is impossible otherwise to render his true appellation in any earthly language. Children born on Fatamiasma receive an enormous number of titles and distinctions as well as a name that is, by our standards, inordinately long.

The day Master Oh came into the world he was called Hridipidagnittusuoayomojorfnagrolliskipwikabeccopyxlbepurz. And duly dubbed Golden Buttress of Being, Doctor of Quintessential Benignity, Most Possibilistive Universatilitude, etc., etc. From year to year, as he studied and matured, the titles and syllables of his name were one by one removed, and since he gave evidence of uncommon abilities, by the thirty-third year of his life he was relieved of his last distinction, and two years later carried no title whatever, while his name was designated in the Fatamiasman alphabet by a single and – moreover – voiceless letter, signifying “celestial aspirate” – this is a kind of stifled gasp which one gives from a surfeit of awe and rapture.

Lem’s literature is as much philosophical excursion as it is storytelling (with plenty of playful asides, as above). He has a gift for both, and a wicked sense of humour – some chapters in The Star Diaries are like Borges having a Douglas Adams dream, as I remarked at the time.

He’s probably best known for Solaris, but it’s not one of the handful I’ve read so far, all of them brilliantly entertaining and consistently thought-provoking. It seems appropriate that Mister Lem’s own name is so short: not quite Master Oh’s stifled gasp of awe and rapture, but not a million light-years away either.

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Edit: Speaking of aspiration and verbal invention, Passive-Aggressive Notes has a note this week from a 6-year-old girl to her mother with what appears to be a sigh of frustration: “hhhh”. I don’t think I’ve seen a sigh spelled so perfectly before.


Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

Read the rest of this entry »


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