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jziegler

Swearing and cursing in the twenties

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jziegler

As the title says - does anyone have resources on the common use of swearwords, cursing and cussing in the twenties? The setting would be New York, beginning of the MoN campaign - I'm actually playing an investigator there, and am asking myself what kind of language would be appropriate/common to use in a FUBAR kind of situation.

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Dagon-Industries-Inc

Maybe this will help you out. It's not swearing or cursing but fits the era none the less.

 

Jazz Age Slang

 

A

ab-so-lute-ly: affirmative

all wet: incorrect

And how!: I strongly agree!

ankle: to walk, i.e.. "Let's ankle!"

apple sauce: flattery, nonsense, i.e.. "Aw, applesauce!"

Attaboy!: well done!; also, Attagirl!

 

B

baby: sweetheart. Also denotes something of high value or respect.

baby grand: heavily built man

baby vamp: an attractive or popular female, student.

balled up: confused, messed up.

baloney: Nonsense!

Bank's closed.: no kissing or making out ie. "Sorry, mac, bank's closed."

bearcat: a hot-blooded or fiery girl

beat it: scram, get lost.

beat one's gums: idle chatter

bee's knee's: terrific; a fad expression. Dozens of "animal anatomy" variations existed: elephant's eyebrows, gnat's whistle, eel's hips, etc.

beef: a complaint or to complain.

beeswax: business, i.e. "None of your beeswax." Student.

bell bottom: a sailor

bent: drunk

berries: (1) perfect (2) money

big cheese: important person

big six: a strong man; from auto advertising, for the new and powerful six cylinder engines.

bimbo: a tough guy

bird: general term for a man or woman, sometimes meaning "odd," i.e. "What a funny old bird."

blotto (1930 at the latest): drunk, especially to an extreme

blow: (1) a crazy party (2) to leave

bohunk: a derogatory name for an Eastern European immigrant. Out of use by 1930, except in certain anti-immigrant circles, like the KKK.

bootleg: illeagal liquor

breezer (1925): a convertable car

bubs: breasts

bug-eyed Betty (1927): an unattractive girl, student.

bull: (1) a policeman or law-enforcement official, including FBI. (2) nonesense, bullshit (3) to chat idly, to exaggerate

bump off: to kill

bum's rush, the: ejection by force from an establishment

bunny (1925): a term of endearment applied to the lost, confused, etc. Often coupled with "poor little."

bus: any old or worn out car.

bushwa: a euphemism for "bullshit"

Butt me.: I'll take a cigarette.

 

C

cake-eater: a lady's man

caper: a criminal act or robbery.

cat's meow: great, also "cat's pajamas" and "cat's whiskers"

cash: a kiss

Cash or check?: Do we kiss now or later?

cast a kitten: to have a fit. Used in both humorous and serious situations. i.e. "Stop tickling me or I'll cast a kitten!" Also, "have kittens."

chassis (1930): the female body

cheaters: eye glasses

check: Kiss me later.

chewing gum: double-speak, or ambiguous talk.

choice bit of calico: attractive female, student.

chopper: a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, due to the damage its heavy .45 caliber rounds did to the human body.

chunk of lead: an unnattractive female, student.

ciggy: cigarette

clam: a dollar

coffin varnish: bootleg liquor, often poisonous.

copacetic: excellent

crasher: a person who attends a party uninvited

crush: infatuation

cuddler: one who likes to make out

 

D

daddy: a young woman's boyfriend or lover, especially if he's rich.

daddy-o: a term of address; strictly an African-American term.

dame: a female. Did not gain widespread use until the 1930's.

dapper: a Flapper's dad

darb: a great person or thing. "That movie was darb."

dead soldier: an empty beer bottle.

deb: a debutant.

dewdropper: a young man who sleeps all day and doesn't have a job

dick: a private investigator. Coined around 1900, the term finds major recognition in the 20's.

dinge: a derogatory term for an African-American. Out of use by 1930.

dogs: feet

doll: an attractive woman.

dolled up: dressed up

don't know from nothing: doesn't have any information

don't take any wooden nickels: don't do anything stupid.

dope: drugs, esp. cocaine or opium.

doublecross: to cheat, stab in the back.

dough: money

drugstore cowboy: A well-dressed man who loiters in public areas trying to pick up women.

dry up: shut up, get lost

ducky: very good

dumb Dora: an absolute idiot, a dumbbell, especially a woman; flapper.

 

E

earful: enough

edge: intoxication, a buzz. i.e. "I've got an edge."

egg: a person who lives the big life

Ethel: an effeminate male.

 

F

face stretcher: an old woman trying to look young

fag: a cigarette. Also, starting around 1920, a homosexual.

fella: fellow. As common in its day as "man," "dude," or "guy" is today. "That John sure is a swell fella."

fire extinguisher: a chaperone

fish: (1) a college freshman (2) a first timer in prison

flat tire: a bore

flivver: a Model T; after 1928, also could mean any broken down car.

floorflusher: an insatiable dancer

flour lover: a girl with too much face powder

fly boy: a glamorous term for an aviator

For crying out loud!: same usage as today

four-flusher: a person who feigns wealth while mooching off others.

fried: drunk

futz: a euphemism for "drat." i.e. "Don't futz around."

 

G

gams (1930): legs

gay: happy or lively; no connection to homosexuality. See "fag."

Get Hot! Get Hot!: encouragement for a hot dancer doing her thing

get-up (1930): an outfit.

get a wiggle on: get a move on, get going

get in a lather: get worked up, angry

gigolo: dancing partner

gimp: cripple; one who walks with a limp. Gangster Dion O’Bannion was called Gimpy due to his noticeable limp.

gin mill: a seller of hard liquor; a cheap speakeasy

glad rags: "going out on the town" clothes

go chase yourself: get lost, scram.

gold-digger (1925): a woman who pursues men for their money.

goods, the: (1) the right material, or a person who has it (2) the facts, the truth, i.e. "Make sure the cops don't get the goods on you."

goof: (1) a stupid or bumbling person, (2) a boyfriend, flapper.

goofy: in love

grummy: depressed

grungy: envious

 

H

hair of the dog (1925): a shot of alcohol.

half seas over: drunk, also "half under."

handcuff: engagement ring

harp: an Irishman

hayburner: (1) a gas guzzling car (2) a horse one loses money on

heavy sugar (1929): a lot of money

heebie-jeebies (1926): "the shakes," named after a hit song.

heeler: a poor dancer

high hat: a snob.

hit on all sixes: to perform 100 per cent; as "hitting on all six cylinders"; perhaps a more common variation in these days of four cylinder engines was "hit on all fours". See "big six".

hood (late 20s): hoodlum

hooey: bullshit, nonsense. Very popular from 1925 to 1930, used somewhat thereafter.

hop: (1) opiate or marijuana (2) a teen party or dance

hope chest: pack of cigarettes

hopped up: under the influence of drugs

Hot dawg!: Great!; also: "Hot socks!" Rarely spelled as shown outside of flapper circles until popularized by 1940s comic strips.

hot sketch: a card or cut-up

 

I

"I have to go see a man about a dog.": "I've got to leave now," often meaning to go buy whiskey.

icy mitt: rejection

insured: engaged

iron (1925): a motorcycle, among motorcycle enthusiasts

iron one’s shoelaces: to go to the restroom

ish kabibble (1925): a retort meaning "I should care." Was the name of a musician in the Kay Kayser Orchestra of the 1930s.

 

J

jack: money

Jake: great, ie. "Everything's Jake."

Jalopy: a dumpy old car

Jane: any female

java: coffee

jeepers creepers: "Jesus Christ!"

jerk soda: to dispense soda from a tap; thus, "soda jerk"

jigaboo: a derogatory term for an African-American

jitney: a car employed as a private bus. Fare was usually five-cents; also called a "nickel."

joe: coffee

Joe Brooks: a perfectly dressed person; student.

john: a toilet

juice joint: a speakeasy

 

K

kale: money

keen: appealing

kike: a derogatory term for a Jewish person

killjoy: a solemn person

knock up: to make pregnant

know one's onions: to know one's business or what one is talking about

 

L

lay off: cut the crap

left holding the bag: (1) to be cheated out of one's fair share (2) to be blamed for something

let George do it: a work evading phrase

level with me: be honest

limey: a British soldier or citizen, from World War I

line: a false story, as in "to feed one a line."

live wire: a lively person

lollapalooza (1930): a humdinger

lollygagger: (1) a young man who enjoys making out (2) an idle person

 

M

manacle: wedding ring

mazuma: money

Mick: a derogatory term for Irishmen

milquetoast (1924): a very timid person; from the comic book character Casper Milquetoast, a hen-pecked male.

mind your potatoes: mind your own business.

mooch: to leave

moonshine: homemade whiskey

mop: a handkerchief

munitions: face powder

 

N

neck: to kiss passionately

necker: a girl who wraps her arms around her boyfriend's neck.

nifty: great, excellent

noodle juice: tea

nookie: sex

Not so good!: I personally disapprove.

"Now you're on the trolley!": Now you've got it, now you're right.

 

O

ofay: a commonly used Black expression for Whites

off one's nuts: crazy

Oh yeah!: I doubt it!

old boy: a male term of address, used in conversation with other males. Denoted acceptance in a social environment. Also "old man" "old fruit." "How's everything old boy?"

Oliver Twist: a skilled dancer

on a toot: a drinking binge

on the lam: fleeing from police

on the level: legitimate, honest

on the up and up: on the level

orchid: an expensive item

owl: a person who's out late

 

P

palooka: (1) a below-average or average boxer (2) a social outsider, from the comic strip character Joe Palooka, who came from humble ethnic roots

panic: to produce a big reaction from one's audience

panther sweat (1925): whiskey

percolate: (1) to boil over (2) As of 1925, to run smoothly; "perk"

pet: necking, only more; making out

petting pantry: movie theater

petting party: one or more couples making out in a room or auto

piffle: baloney

piker: (1) a cheapskate (2) a coward

pill: (1) a teacher (2) an unlikable person

pinch: to arrest. Pinched: to be arrested.

pinko: liberal

pipe down: stop talking

prom-trotter: a student who attends all school social functions

pos-i-lute-ly: affirmative, also "pos-i-tive-ly"

punch the bag: small talk

putting on the ritz: after the Ritz Hotel in Paris (and its namesake Caesar Ritz); doing something in high style. Also "ritzy."

 

Q

quiff: a slut or cheap prostitute

 

R

rag-a-muffin: a dirty or disheveled individual

rain pitchforks: a downpour

razz: to make fun of

Real McCoy: a genuine item

regular: normal, typical, average; "Regular fella."

Reuben: an unsophisticated country bumpkin. Also "rube"

Rhatz!: How disappointing!

rub: a student dance party

rubes: money or dollars

rummy: a drunken bum

 

S

sap: a fool, an idiot. Very common term in the 20s.

says you: a reaction of disbelief

scratch: money

screaming meemies: the shakes

screw: get lost, get out, etc. Occasionally, in pre 1930 talkies (such as The Broadway Melody) screw is used to tell a character to leave. One film features the line "Go on, go on -- screw!"

screwy: crazy; "You're screwy!"

sheba: one's girlfriend

sheik: one's boyfriend

shiv: a knife

simolean: a dollar

sinker: a doughnut

sitting pretty: in a prime position

skirt: an attractive female

smarty: a cute flapper

smoke-eater: a smoker

smudger: a close dancer

sockdollager: an action having a great impact

so's your old man: a reply of irritation

spade: yet another derogatory term for an African-American

speakeasy: a bar selling illeagal liquor

spill: to talk

spoon: to neck, or at least talk of love

static: (1) empty talk (2) conflicting opinion

stilts: legs

struggle: modern dance

stuck on: in love, student.

sugar daddy: older boyfriend who showers girlfriend with gifts in exchange for sex

swanky: good

swell: (1) good (2) a high class person

 

T

take someone for a ride: to take someone to a deserted location and murder them.

tasty: appealing

teenager: not a common term until 1930; before then, the term was "young adults."

tell it to Sweeney: tell it to someone who'll believe it.

tight: attractive

Tin Pan Alley: the music industry in New York, located between 48th and 52nd Streets

tomato: a "ripe" female

torpedo: a hired thug or hitman

 

U

unreal: special

upchuck: to vomit

upstage: snobby

 

V

vamp: (1) a seducer of men, an aggressive flirt (2) to seduce

voot: money

 

W

water-proof: a face that doesn't require make-up

wet blanket: see Killjoy

wife: dorm roomate, student.

What's eating you?: What's wrong?

whoopee: wild fun

Woof! Woof!: ridicule

 

X

 

Y

You slay me!: That's funny!

 

Z

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jziegler

Thanks, Father_Dagon - not exactly what I was looking for, but a great resource nevertheless. I will make ample use of that.

Still looking for the bits of language that might be considered offensive, but would be uttered if you see the whole place go to hell before your eyes. For additional clarification - english is not my first language, so I have some problems regarding language history and figures of speech, especially in non-contemporary settings. If anyone could come up with some info regarding the 20s with special focus on swearing - I would be eternally grateful. This is for a play-by-post-game, by the way. This kind of games tend to enforce my out-of-game research tendencies...

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Teapot

Well, according to WIKI, the F-word was used as a common profanity as early as 17th century. S.H.I.Tea also goes way back. Both are suitable for 1920's.

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Gaffer

Keep in mind that for many people at this time -- especially in the middle-class USA -- even euphemisms for God (gosh, jehosaphat, Jeezum) and damn (darn, dagnab) and hell (heck) were considered worthy of reproof and censure. By 1939, Clark Gable's utterance of "damn" at the end of "Gone With the Wind" was daring and controversial.

 

So, yes, sh** and f**k and such were used, but it would cost you credit in many circumstances. And calling the wrong man "son-of-a-b**ch" could get you punched or even shot.

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Beyond02

in all male milieus, particularly the military, obscenity was the rule rather than the exception. A woman in a traditionally male domain (say a spunky reporter for a major etropolitan newspaper) would be treated with kid gloves but also get excluded a lot of the time until she opened up with a string of invective to make a sailor blush and ths earn her bonafides. Don't cuss in front of a man of the cloth or a nun, unless he or she starts it first. Don't cuss in front of anyone's mother . . . EVER! In many deeply religious groups (such as the Amish and other anabaptists) obscenity wasn't that serious (though avoid it at the Quaker meeting house) but profanity and blasphemy could deeply offend. Most cultures built there strongest obscenity around defecation and copulation words (though Russian does not seem to have any s4!t obscenity concentrating it all on fnkc words).

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Teapot
though Russian does not seem to have any s4!t obscenity concentrating it all on fnkc words

 

Sure we do! Granted I haven't been back to Ukraine for some four years, but I can quote at least two terms to denominate feces as a derogatory expression.

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cynick

Well I've recently ploughed through most of HPLs Selected Letters, and he used slang reasonably frequently, but I found myself actually shocked when he used the word sh*t and bullsh*t maybe 2 or 3 times in nearly 1000 published letters (and I swear like a f***ing trooper, so I'm not easily shocked when it comes to language).

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TheKingInYellow
Well I've recently ploughed through most of HPLs Selected Letters, and he used slang reasonably frequently, but I found myself actually shocked when he used the word sh*t and bullsh*t maybe 2 or 3 times in nearly 1000 published letters (and I swear like a f***ing trooper, so I'm not easily shocked when it comes to language).

 

I'm not usually fazed by swearing either, but from Lovecraft it's surprising. It's like paging through Emily Post's book of erotic fiction :lol:

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cynick
Well I've recently ploughed through most of HPLs Selected Letters, and he used slang reasonably frequently, but I found myself actually shocked when he used the word sh*t and bullsh*t maybe 2 or 3 times in nearly 1000 published letters (and I swear like a f***ing trooper, so I'm not easily shocked when it comes to language).

 

I'm not usually fazed by swearing either, but from Lovecraft it's surprising. It's like paging through Emily Post's book of erotic fiction :lol:

 

Hmm, I've just re-read my own post and I think it can be misinterpreted.

What I mean is - out of nearly 1000 letters, HPL used sh*t maybe 3 times in total. It was the rarity that made it stand out.

 

Although I'd be pretty shocked if he used it 2 or 3 times in every letter (as my original post could imply), considering his cultured persona.

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Thorulfr

In addition to the swear words considered mild today (e.g. d@mn), there are words that we wouldn't think twice about, but were a bit shocking in the 20's. The word "lousy", for example, originally meant "lice-ridden", and its easy use disturbed the more conservative listeners. They were becoming quite concerned about the way coarse language was becoming more common and accepted by the young, and particularly by women (possibly a result of hanging around in speakeasies.)

90 years and it still sounds familiar. Plus ça change, ...

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Taeblewalker

How about "aces!" I am not sure if it was in use in the 20's, but certainly in the late 30's and 40's.

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QuentinTheTroll

Because of the relative (to today) lack of swearing in printed materials, media, recordings, film and personal letters, there's a lot of debate as to exactly how frequently cursing was used in the street or in familiar parlance.

 

But there's a clue in that fact alone: I'd argue that I hear slightly-to-far-more cursing in those media today than I do in normal personal interaction. The fact that people refrained from usage in such a wide swath of communications, when today we are more likely to use such "permanant" (i.e. ones that may make it into the historical record) media to exercise our freedom of filth is important to note.

 

The fact is, in the 1920s cursing was still socially considered "naughty" in most circles (even the military...which is why it was done so much! Kind of an "in-crowd" form of "safe power exertion.") if not downright offensive. It is still considered offensive in some circles today, but there are far more groups today in which cursing is used to compensate for an otherwise limited vocabulary more than anything else.

 

One place where we can get a feel for where things have changed is on live radio broadcasts. Today in the U.S. even with FCC Nannying, course language is commonplace on the radio, both from hosts and from guests or callers. Occassionally this is noted and corrected, but not frequently. The more formal language of, say, live radio broadcasts and "man in the street" reports of the 1920s indicates that there was more widespread cultural recognition and respect for the language one used, at least in public.

 

Furthermore, although one can point to old military ingenuity for creative placements of "naughty words" (SNAFU, FUBAR, etc.) and certainly there were some well-known foul-mouthed artisans (George Patton springs to mind) it is probably important to note that the now popular curse-word "breaks" (such as "absofreakinlutely") were not widely used in the '20s, if at all.

 

So, if you find episodes of Deadwood to be jarring in their intentional overuse of cursing (even if, as the producers insist, the practice is not anachronistic to the times) you may be better off getting your players hip to the slang of the day (which, frankly, was offensive enough to enough old biddies to be punchy and fun) but consider trying to keep a reign on casual (i.e. modern) swearing.

 

Just a thought.

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Beyond02
though Russian does not seem to have any s4!t obscenity concentrating it all on fnkc words

 

Sure we do! Granted I haven't been back to Ukraine for some four years, but I can quote at least two terms to denominate feces as a derogatory expression.

 

Really? I have always heard that Maat was all about copulation in various degrading was (particularly involving one's mother) but that defecatory words were so banal in Russian that when they occur in Western movies they are dubbed with an entirely different meaning simply because the emotional content doesn't carry over.

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Dzan

I asked my dad. He was born in 1926 and lived a pretty rough and tumble childhood.

 

Theere was swearing to be sure, but it was nowhere as prevalent as it is today. You guys got all of the typical swear words. The words did not change too much although the prevalance of them did.

 

As many other posters pointed out there were also alot of other slang words.

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Teapot

"Maat" (pronounced maht', with a mild T on the end. Don't even try to pronounce it if English is your first language! :P) simply means mother, but it does get used as a light swear word (much like damn or hell). It's still not something you'd want to say in front of your parents.

 

defecatory words were so banal in Russian that when they occur in Western movies they are dubbed with an entirely different meaning simply because the emotional content doesn't carry over.

 

News to me. Maybe in rural areas, yes, folks tend to supplement their speech with a plethora of profane terms, but it's not common on the telly - from my experience, anyway. Maybe I'm just starting to forget, or something. >.>

 

F**k does get used a lot by youth among their peers.

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Beyond02
"Maat" (pronounced maht', with a mild T on the end. Don't even try to pronounce it if English is your first language! :P) simply means mother, but it does get used as a light swear word (much like damn or hell). It's still not something you'd want to say in front of your parents.

 

defecatory words were so banal in Russian that when they occur in Western movies they are dubbed with an entirely different meaning simply because the emotional content doesn't carry over.

 

News to me. Maybe in rural areas, yes, folks tend to supplement their speech with a plethora of profane terms, but it's not common on the telly - from my experience, anyway. Maybe I'm just starting to forget, or something. >.>

 

F**k does get used a lot by youth among their peers.

 

I have no first hand knowledge to draw upon but I have read articles that talk about Maat as the name for what almost constitutes a secondary language in Russia, a language of obscenity. What is asserted is that Russia has no emotionally neutral or positive terms to talk about sex; under harsh censorship regulations going back to the late Czarist period Maat (which may or may not be derived from the word for mother) developed as a way of speaking obscenities, almost in code. Most of these codes being variations of accusations of someone having incestuous relations with his/her mother . . .

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Sinister-Ornament

This thread is an excellent idea

 

I’ve previously tried to come up with a list of English slang for the 1920s and so I have the pleasure of quoting myself (spelling mistakes left in)...

 

I believe the use of profanity is currently frowned upon during your ongoing MASKS campaign, so I have a suggestion for the British characters in the game, why not use words that would replicate the feel of the era?

 

May I suggest the following alternatives;

 

Poppycock!

Doolally (good for describing those suddenly sanity disadvantaged PCs, as in, he's gone quite doolally)

 

I say! (I think this has already been used a couple of times to great effect)

 

Blimey

Utter rot!

Rotton luck

Take back that foul slur against my reputation!

Good show!

Dodgy fellow

Bloody well should

You cad!

Deranged bounder and all round bad egg

Just not Cricket

Enough of your malodorus diatribe!

Damn nuisance

Useless Malingerer

Dangerous Tomfoolery

Jiggery-Pokery (as in Occult paraphernalia not how's-your-father)

Desist your evil shenaningans you worthless Ne'er-do-wells!

You nefarious rascal!

 

In fact, I think this would work for most historical games - having a word list of slang and phrases from the era, it adds to the period ambiance.

 

I heard someone mention that the book 'Bull-dog Drummond' by Sapper (1920) is actually, almost impenetrable to Americans because of the twenties British slang. Has anyone from the other side of the pond read any Sapper and can prove this wrong?

 

 

Source: http://www.rpgmp3.com/modules.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=521&postdays=0&postorder=asc&highlight=poppycock&start=180

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Shathis

Frankly, almost this entire list is composed of Americanisms that are still used today everywhere outside of the major cities, but mostly in the Northeast. The vast majority I never considered "archaic" by any means.

 

I would suggest there are lots of words in common British parlance that might be considered archaic by American means as well. :)

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StagLord

Don't forget "yegg" - slang for egg, used to denote a person. as in "he's a good yegg". I ahve a sense it was a pretty common slang term among gangsters etc.

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Gaffer
Don't forget "yegg" - slang for egg, used to denote a person. as in "he's a good yegg". I ahve a sense it was a pretty common slang term among gangsters etc.

I'm afraid you've gotten these terms confused, Staglord, though both were common in the 1920s/30s.

 

"He's a good egg" would be used to indicate someone was alright, not a stinker, as a "bad egg" would be.

 

"Yegg" was used at least from 1903 to denote a thief, especially a safecracker. The origin is unknown, but the term yeggman is used interchangeably.

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moonbeast

"What, you egg!" -MacBeth

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Max Schreck
"He's a good egg" would be used to indicate someone was alright, not a stinker, as a "bad egg" would be.

 

"Yegg" was used at least from 1903 to denote a thief, especially a safecracker. The origin is unknown, but the term yeggman is used interchangeably.

 

A "yegg" was a putty ball of grease and nitroglycerine. The yeggman would mash the putty ball into the jambs of a safe door and other strategic locations, and give it a hard knock with a sledgehammer. Most yeggmen were hard of hearing... As for the origin of the word itself, "yegg", I am unaware of it.

 

Max

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Karloff

There was a host of 'egg' slang in the 20's, but I'm not sure there's a direct connection with yegg.

 

Usually it went along the lines of hard-boiled - ie. he's a three-minute egg, five-minute egg, eight-minute egg, and so on.

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StagLord

Ah! fascinating - I was aware of teh egg slang form my reading and I just assumed yegg was a Brooklyn-ese corruption of same. I had no idea it had a separate etymology.

 

Thanks guys!

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