August 3, 2013
Here’s a fun passage in Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Gutting of Couffignal’, a great story that opens The Big Knockover and Other Stories (whose colourful crooks’ names I listed recently). Skip the first paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.
‘There’s your choice, Flippo,’ I summed up for him. ‘All I can give you is freedom from San Quentin. The princess can give you a fat cut of the profits in a busted caper, with a good chance to get yourself hanged.’
The girl, remembering her advantage over me, went at him hot and heavy in Italian, a language in which I know only four words. Two are them are profane and the other two obscene. I said all four.
Profanity is when something is considered insulting to a religion, its god(s), or people’s beliefs in them. Obscenity involves offense to taste or common decency, something vulgar enough to be taboo in a given context (often relating to sex or bodily functions). There are legal nuances to both terms, but I won’t get into that here.
Two profane and two obscene words, all presumably common swears, or common in the early 20th century. I can guess what they might be, but maybe Hammett didn’t have four particular words in mind. There are Italian speakers in my family; I’ll run it by them. For research.
6 Comments | books, language, speech, words | Tagged: books, crime fiction, curse words, Dashiell Hammett, Italian, language, obscenity, profanity, profanology, swear words, swearing, taboo, taboo words, words | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
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.
The 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:
The Shivering Kid
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
Toots Salda, the strongest man in crookdom
The Dis-and-Dat Kid
Bernie Bernheimer, alias the Motsa Kid
L. A. Slim, from Denver, sockless and underwearless as usual
Old Pete Best, once a congressman
Fat Boy Clarke
Tom Brooks, who invented the Richmond razzle-dazzle and bought three hotels with the profits
Big Flora Brace
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
Angel Grace Cardigan
Toby the Lugs, who used to brag about picking President Wilson’s pocket in a Washington vaudeville theatre
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.
7 Comments | books, language, naming, slang, writing | Tagged: books, crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett, detective, detective fiction, hard-boiled, language, names, naming, reading, slang, writing | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey
July 31, 2012
People often wonder whether to write OK, okay, O.K., ok, or o.k. They’re all OK, but the last two are less so – at least in formal styles – and the first may be the most OK of all, nowadays. Some prefer okay because it looks more normal or proper, or because its inflected forms (okayed, okaying) don’t warrant an apostrophe.
The word has many apocryphal etymologies, including Latin omnis korrecta, Scottish och aye, Choctaw oke, German ohne Korrektur, French au quai, and Finnish oikea. But it’s actually an abbreviation of the deliberate misspelling oll korrect.
Monosyllablic forms such as ’kay, kay, and K are common, especially in text messages, internet chat and casual speech, while long versions – like the rhyming reduplications okie-dokie, okey-doke(y), and the Ned Flanders-y okely-dokely or okily-dokily – are also popular. Other variants include okey and the obsolete okeh.
Reading The Dain Curse last week, a 1929 detective novel by Dashiell Hammett,* I came across yet another form:
When we reached the Temple door I had to caution him: ‘Try not breathing so hard. Everything will probably be oke.’
At first I thought it might be pronounced the same, maybe with an unstressed second syllable; but apparently it’s homophonous with oak. Chambers Slang Dictionary says the adjective, as in Hammett, above, occurred in the US in the 1920s–1950s; the exclamation oke! appeared only in the 1930s.
I can’t see it coming back in style, but I guess that’s oke.
* See also: Dashiell Hammett on how to be a detective.
33 Comments | language, slang, spelling, words | Tagged: books, Dashiell Hammett, etymology, language, literature, OK, reduplication, slang, spelling, usage, words | Permalink
Posted by Stan Carey