Slangs of New York

Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York (2002) has a special feature on the DVD called ‘Five Points Vocabulary’. Five Points is a reference to the Manhattan district where the film is set, and the vocabulary is a glossary of slang from that era (1840s–60s) and place.

It looks like this:

Gangs of New York - Five Points vocabulary 1 from Vocabulum; or, The Rogue's Lexicon (1859) by George Washington Matsell

The glossary is spread over eight such pages, so rather than add images, I’ve compiled the text below. Fair warning: it’s slang, and therefore not politically correct.

Amusers: fellows who carry snuff or pepper in their pockets, which they throw into a person’s eyes and then run away.

Anglers: small thieves who place a hook on the end of a stick, with which they steal from store windows, doors, etc.

Autum-divers: pickpockets who practice in churches.

Ballum-rancum: a ball where all the dancers are thieves and prostitutes.

Bene: good, first-rate.

Bludget: a female thief who decoys her victims into dark alleys to rob them.

Boardingschool: a penitentiary.

Cove: a man.

Crusher: a policeman.

Cutter: a peculiar instrument that first-class burglars use for cutting through iron chests, doors, etc.

Dancing: sneaking upstairs to commit a larceny.

Fidlam bens: thieves who have no particular lay; fellows that will steal anything they can remove.

Gander: a married man not living at home with this wife.

Groaners: thieves who attend at charity sermons and rob the congregation, steal the prayer books, etc.

Handle: a nose.

High tide: plenty of money.

Jack sprat: a small fellow.

Jigger: a door.

Laced mutton: a common woman.

Lurch: abandon.

Moneker: a name.

Mort: a woman.

Nimenog: a very silly fellow.

Partial: putting one’s hand into another man’s pocket, stealing.

Polisher: one who is in prison.

Prim: a handsome woman.

Quartered: to receive a part of the profits.

Queen dick: never; it never happened.

Rabbit: a rowdy (dead rabbit: a very athletic rowdy fellow).

Roughs: men who are ready to fight in any way or shape.

Sand: nerve, guts.

Shehe: a transvestite.

Sneakthief: a fellow who sneaks into doors or windows with latchkeys and steals anything he can carry.

Stag: one who has turned State’s evidence.

Stargazer: a prostitute or streetwalker.

Stepplingken: a dance house.

Swag: plunder.

Tumbled: suspected, found it out.

Turtledovers: a pair of gloves.

Woodencoat: a coffin.

It’s a curious, colourful set. Some are obvious loanwords, such as bene from Italian; others are more obscure or have a more characteristically underground flavour (crusher, wooden-coat). A few, like sneak thief and swag, are in more or less standard use today.

The entries appear to be from Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, an 1859 dictionary of criminal cant by George Washington Matsell – New York’s first police chief. If you have an appetite for this kind of thing, you can browse or download the whole book from the Internet Archive.

In his slang history Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue, Jonathon Green writes that American cant in Matsell’s time ‘still appears to have been apeing its English origins’. He says Matsell ‘seems to have got it right’, citing reports that both criminals and police officers confirmed the authenticity of the Vocabulum‘s lexicon. (Matsell’s legacy as an agent of the law is a bit shadier.)

There’s no shortage of films of linguistic interest, but it’s not often I see a purely linguistic feature on a DVD. In fact, it’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head. If you know of others, let me know in a comment.

15 Responses to Slangs of New York

  1. John Cowan says:

    Monicker is pretty standard too, if dated.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, and it’s one I’ve used myself, if infrequently, e.g. to refer to an online username. I’ve seldom seen it spelt differently than moniker. Interesting too that its origin is uncertain.

      • David L says:

        ‘Moniker’ is in fairly common use in the US as newspaperese. At least it is in the Washington Post. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone use it in spoken US English.

        • Stan Carey says:

          Right. I’ve heard it in speech, but not often. A quick search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English suggests it’s used predominantly in journalism: newspapers and magazines combined account for 473 of 666 examples, plus 65 academic, 88 fiction, and just 40 spoken.

  2. Oh lord. There came that point in what was already not one of Scorsese’s finest when Dicaprio pops up in voice-over and announces something on the lines of: ‘We had all sortsa slang back in those days down at the ol’ Five Points…’ and delivers a micro-glossary. I writhed. As for Matsell, let his nickname ‘The Beastly Bloated Booby’ etch his place in history.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s very far from his finest. I hadn’t seen it since its release and thought I’d give it another look, having been mostly unimpressed the first time round. But it’s not one I can see myself ever revisiting again. Matsell’s nickname has cheered me right up, though.

  3. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Great post, and as you know, I picked up the Italian “bene”, but I wonder if there are not other “underworld” slang words, or slang generally, drawn from languages other than English (or Irish for that matter, with respect, Stan). There is a number of words from Aboriginal languages that are now, relatively, standard words in north Australian English.

  4. Chips, Many of these words were claimed for Irish by the late Daniel Cassidy, but there was no basis to the vast majority of his claims, and I’m quite sure Stan would back me up on that. I have dealt with a number of his dodgy claims in relation to Gangs of New York on my own blog, CassidySlangScam..

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, Cassidy’s book is pilloried by proper slang lexicographers. I haven’t read it and I don’t intend to, but I trust Grant Barrett, who shows why it ‘falls apart on first reading by anyone with some expertise in the field’.

  5. John says:

    Does most of the slang words used are identical or unique to New York, or it’s all spoken everywhere. May be I should try this myself too.

  6. Anna says:

    Great article!

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