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in: Living, Reading

From Gumshoes to Gats: A Dictionary of Hard-Boiled Slang

I’m a big fan of hard-boiled detective novels. I highlighted my favorites in a previous article.

The thing about hard-boiled detective novels is that the characters often use slang words that were in common use in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but are no longer part of our popular vocabulary.

There have been a few times when I’ve been reading a Raymond Chandler or John McDonald novel where the dialogue left me scratching my head.

Hundreds of hard-boiled slang words have been recorded and compiled. Below, I’ve highlighted my favorites from this category of vernacular. You’ll likely notice that there are a lot of different words for “detective.” It took me a while to figure out that a “shamus” was a detective. My absolute favorite of these slang words are the greetings (“How’s tricks?” “What’s the score?”) and the ways to tell people to get lost (“Go fry a stale egg!”).

Hopefully, reviewing this list will help you better understand the next hard-boiled detective novel you read. And maybe you’ll even sprinkle some of these words into your daily vocab to mix things up with some gritty old-school lingo.

Big house. Federal prison.

Bird. Person, either male or female, but frequently female.

Bite an egg. Take breakfast.

Blow. To leave.

Bo. Generic address; guy; jack; pal.

Booby-hatch. Mental hospital.

Bull. Cop.

Butter and egg man. Sugar daddy; implication is one fairly free with his money.

Buttons. Cops.

Buzzer. Police badge; identification.

C-note. Hundred-dollar bill.

Chicago overcoat. Coffin.

Chiseler. Low-life; hanger-on; somebody chiseling money from others.

Dance on air. Hang, as from a noose.

Darb. A person with money, who can be relied upon to pay a check.

Dead soldier. Empty liquor bottle.

Deadpan. Bodyguard; tough guy; gunny with a sheen of respectability.

Dip the bill. To have a drink.

Dish. Attractive woman.

Draw a lot of water. To have a lot of influence; to exert great influence.

Drop the arm. Arrest; nab; apprehend; snatch.

Dry-gulch. To ambush; surprise; sneak attack or attack from behind.

Dumb onion. A fool; dupe; idiot.

Dust. Take a hike; get lost; drift.

Fakeloo artist. Conman; faker; liar; pretender; deceiver.

Fin. $5 bill.

Flatfoot. Detective; shamus.

Flim-flam: Dupe; deceive; trick; take in.

Floaters. Corpses in the water; people dead by drowning.

Fog. Riddle someone with bullets.

Gat. Gun.

Gee. Man; fellow.

Gill. A drink.

Go fry a stale egg. Get lost; go jump in a lake.

Goose-berry lay. Stealing clothes from clotheslines.

Gumshoe. Detective/private dick/PI/etc.

Gunny. Hired gun; thug.

Gunsel. Hired gun.

Hackie. Taxi driver.

Hard boy. Tough guy; bodyguard; hired thug.

Hard number. Tough guy.

Hay. Useless scrip/fake bills/etc.

Heel. Jerk; low life; scumbag.

Heeled. Packing; carrying a gun.

How’s tricks? A greeting, akin to “How’s it going?”

Jake [also jakeloo]. Fine; okay; acceptable; no big deal.

Jasper. Man; handsome fellow.

Keyhole peeper. Detective/private dick/PI/etc.

Loogan. A guy with a gun.

Lug. A guy; generic address for a man; connotation of thick-headedness or limited ability/usefulness; not necessarily connoting goon, thug.

Lulu. A good-looking woman.

Make with the feet. Get lost; scram.

Mauler. Brass knuckles.

Mickey Finn (mickey). A surreptitiously adulterated drink (or the drug added to the drink to make it so) given to somebody for the purpose of rendering them insensible or unconscious.

Miscount the trumps. To overlook something.

Moll. Gangster’s girlfriend/woman/partner.

Mugg. A man (sometimes referring to dumb ones), guy, person; possible connotation of not being entirely on the up-and-up.

Muggle-smoker/muggle. Pothead; druggie.

Nevada gas. Cyanide.

Newshawk. Reporter.

No soap. No luck.

Nuts to you. Go to hell (mild).

Pie-eyed. Very drunk.

Piker. Amateur; small-time operator.

Polish an apple: Talk up; chat up; suck up to.

Prowl car. Police car.

Real cream. A good person.

Rodded. Carrying a gun (rod).

Rooster. Man who picks a fight, or somebody who carries himself like a rooster; confrontational.

Sap. Fool; fall-guy; love-struck sucker.

Sawbuck/double sawbuck. 10 dollars/20 dollars.

Shamus. Detective/private dick/PI/etc.

Sharper. Detective; private operator.

Sitting on dynamite. In the crosshairs; in the middle of a (figuratively) explosive situation.

Slip (one’s) clutch. Losing it.

Smart little egg. A fool; dupe; idiot.

Sneezer. Jail.

Squibbed (off). Killed.

Stool-pigeon. Rat; fink; an informant; criminal who talks to the cops.

Take a flutter (at something). To make a passing attempt.

Twist. Woman, with possible connotation of girlfriend, or somebody seen on the side.

Typewriter. Machine-gun.

What’s the score? What’s going on; what’s up; etc.

World-beater. Somebody better than the rest; capable of taking on the world; a person in high esteem.

Yard. One hundred dollars.

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