Some Excellent Mid-19th-Century Criminal Slang That's Ripe For Revival   

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Oct. 22 2013 3:30 PM

Some Excellent Mid-19th-Century Criminal Slang That's Ripe For Revival

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The following list of slang terms is drawn from a book compiled by the first New York City Police Chief, George W. Matsell, in 1859. Vocabulum, or the Rogue’s Lexicon, which you can read in full text via the Internet Archive, includes an index of criminals’ slang with definitions, short stories written using the “language,” and appendices cataloging the specialized slang of gamblers, billiard-players, brokers, and pugilists.

As Matsell’s 1877 obituary in the New York Times describes, the Chief helmed the first attempt at organized law enforcement in the city, standardizing and professionalizing police work. Matsell was forced out of office for a short time in the late 1850s, at which time he wrote and published the Rogue’s Lexicon. (He eventually returned to public service, becoming the first New York City Police Commissioner.)


Matsell wrote in his preface that he intended the book to help police officers crack the code of criminal language, which, he wrote, “is calculated to mislead and bewilder, so that rogues might still converse in the presence of an officer, and he be ignorant of what they said.” At the same time, given Matsell’s later editorship of the National Police Gazette—a periodical that titillated its readers with crime stories, while pretending to inform—it seems likely that the book might have found some casual readers fascinated by criminal ways.

Not all of these words are so wonderful. The Rogue’s Lexicon contains any number of distasteful terms for women, who were prostitutes (“mawks”); mistresses (“peculiar”); pesky old maids (“tabby”); or “short and dowdy” (“mopsey”). A “rib” was a “cross, ill-natured wife,” and a “quail-pipe” was “a woman’s tongue” (presumably, this was not a compliment).

Much of this slang, though, is full of appeal. Sluice your gob with this gapeseed, ye lushingtons and kates!

I’ve reproduced Matsell’s explanations verbatim, and linked to the page in the book where the word can be found. Thanks to Jess Nevins, who pointed to this document on his Twitter feed.

Altitudes: A state of drunkenness; being high.

Ambidexter: One who befriends both sides; a lawyer who takes fees from both parties in a suit.

Bag of nails: Everything in confusion.

Balsam: Money.

Barking-irons: Pistols.

Billy Noodle: A soft fellow that believes the girls are all in love with him.

Blue-plum: A bullet; “Surfeit the bloke with blue-plum,” shoot him.

Bread-bag: The stomach. [Also: Middle-piece; Victualling Office.]

Bun: A fellow that can not be shaken off.

Chatty feeder: A spoon. [Also, Feeders: Silver spoons or forks. “Nap the feeders,” steal the spoons. Smash-feeder: A silver spoon.]

Cutty-eyed: To look out of the corner of the eyes; to look suspicious; to leer; to look askance. “The copper cutty-eyed us,” the officer looked suspicious at us.

Daisyville: The country.

Dry up: Be silent; stop that.

Flay: To vomit. (Also “hash.”)

Flicker: To drink. “Flicker with me,” drink with me.

Forks: The fore and middle fingers.

Foxing: To pretend to be asleep.

Gapeseed: Wonderful stories; any thing that will cause people to stop, look, or listen.

Glimsticks: Candlesticks.

Goosecap: A silly fellow; a fool.

Heavers: Persons in love.

Hubbub: Pain in the stomach.

Idea-pot: A man’s head.

Ivy bush: A very small-faced man who has a large quantity of hair on his face and head.

Kate: A smart, brazen-faced woman.

Kitchen Physic: Food. “A little kitchen physic will set me up.” I have more need of a cook than a doctor.

Leaf: Autumn. “I will be out in the leaf,” I will be out in the autumn.

Lenten: Nothing to eat; starving.

Low Tide: Very little money left.

Lushingtons: Drunken men.

Out-and-Out: A spree; a frolic.

Pap Lap: An infant. “He is but a pap lap,” he is but a baby.

Peery: Suspicious. “The bloke’s peery,” the man suspects something. “There’s a peery, ‘tis snitch,” we are observed, nothing can be done.

Pig Together: Sleep together, two or more in a bed.

Rag-Water: Intoxicating liquor of all kinds. If frequently taken to excess, will reduce any person to rages.

Red Rag: The tongue. “Shut your potato-trap and given the red rag a holiday,” shut your mouth and let your tongue rest.

Sluice Your Gob: Take a good long drink.

Small Snow: Children’s linen.

Squeaker: A child.

Tooth-Music: Chewing food with a good appetite.

Author George Matsell, surrounded by his police captains.

New York Public Library Digital Collections.



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