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Some friends of mine picked up this volume at a used bookstore while on vacation and we had a lot of fun reading through it.  It’s “bilingual,” so the first half defines thousands of slang terms and phrases, while the second half advises you on what to call a cemetery (bone-orchard), how to affectionately describe the electric chair (old monkey), and tips on how to resist (stick and slug) arrest (booby-pinch).

When vacation ended, they were kind enough to let me have it (after much whining) because I wanted to post interesting entries online.  But was it still in copyright?

Here’s the citation:

Goldin, Hyman E., Frank O’Leary, and Morris Lipsius, eds. Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo, New York: Twayne, 1950.

When I got the book home I looked up Twayne (they’re now owned by Gale/Cengage), and checked their online catalog.  It wasn’t in there, but that only means it’s out of print, not out of copyright.

Enter yesterday’s release of U.S. copyright renewals by the Google Books team. Since the dictionary was published between 1923 and 1963, the absence of its appearance in the renewals data strongly suggests that it’s public domain.  Not so strongly that I’d just grab the content and re-print it, but enough that I feel comfortable posting some excerpts here now and then.

This time, we’ll start with the “Advisory Board”:

  1. Bad Bill – arrested on a variety of criminal pursuits
  2. Big Department – extortionist, police impersonator, jewel thief among the NYC elite
  3. Bubbles – robber, forger and burglar
  4. Butch – bank robber, strike breaker, election fraud boss, car thief, pinball and slot-machine operator
  5. Chink – purse-snatcher, safe-robber and armed holdup man
  6. Chop Chop – strong-arm terrorist [sic], burglar and robber
  7. Dippo – pickpocket from age 14 to 39
  8. Duke – pickpock, con man, carnival thief
  9. Hal the Rebel – various
  10. Iggy – robber, carnival thief, con man
  11. Jo Jo – robber and burglar
  12. Red Mack – robber and burglar
  13. Slim – counterfeiter and forger
  14. Stubs – larcenist, forger and swingler
  15. The Colonel – con man [“He requests that no further details be made public”]

Tags: copyright, dictionary, lingo, public domain, underworld,

2 Responses to “The Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo (1950)”

  1. specs martin

    i’m sure william s. burroughs was aware of this dictionary while writing ‘junkie’ which came out in 1953. the dictionary represents a type of grassroots sociology that is so off-campus and correct, it’s hard to come across. this book should be in print. it is an astonishing and penetrating study of fugitive language and how it impacts certain aspects of society before often filtering into the mainstream.
    s. martin mimms

  2. catalog software

    Nice one. I tried finding this dictionary online but I can’t seem to locate it. Do you know of anyone selling it in hard copy? I really think that the dictionary genius and it should be in print.