Slang from Hardboiled Crime Novels We Need to Bring Back
The wave of crime fiction that emerged during the 1930s and 40s introduced a new kind of protagonist: the hardboiled private eye. More than just a cynical detective with a fancy suit and a bad smoking habit, the private eye was also a mastermind of language. The number of phrases that crime novel authors invented has always impressed me, despite the fact that half of them sound like insults an elementary school kid would come up with in an attempt to impress his friends. For example. . .
1. Dingus (n.): object; thing
Ex. The hotshot in the corner had some dingus in his coat pocket and I wanted to know what it was.
Are the detectives in these stories really perceptive sleuths? Or are they just pre-teens dressed in their father’s work clothes? After hearing this word, I’m not so sure. The only person that would suggest “dingus” as an alternative to “thing” is someone who was looking for an excuse to make unnecessary dirty jokes, or someone who is trying to bring “dingbat” back into circulation.
2. Newshawk (n.): reporter
Ex. I tried to tell everyone that Hello Kitty was not actually a kitty, but the newshawks weren’t having it.
When I hear the word “newshawk,” the first thing that comes to mind, after a hawk dressed up as a news anchor, is Courteney Cox’s character from the Scream movies. A newshawk is not a regular reporter, but one that goes to extreme lengths to get a story, like a hawk going after its prey. Gale Weathers may not be the nicest person in the world, but she will do whatever it takes to get the story, even if that means crashing a scary movie marathon filled with drunken teenagers.
3. Go climb up your thumb (v.): beat it; shove it; move along
Ex. You can’t climb a beanstalk? Well then go climb your thumb, because you’re useless to me. – Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk to his friends, probably.
I secretly hope that some kid out there took this command a little too seriously and attempted to ascend his own thumb, either leaving him in the hospital or the circus.
4. Make with the feet (v.): get lost; scram; beat it; dust; breeze; etc.
Ex. Whataya still doin’ here? Make with the feet, kid. Get outta here!
If you’re not saying this sentence like a disgruntled, Italian mafia member, then you’re not getting the full effect. In my mind, there’s also a “shooing” motion involved and a group of kids scampering away but we all interpret things–sorry, dinguses–differently.
5. Apple-polish (v.): bribe; sweeten up
Ex. Mrs. White wasn’t too happy with my impromptu rendition of “Let It Go” in the middle of class yesterday, so I tried to apple-polish her this morning with a barrel of freshly picked apples.
Everyone knows an apple is only as good as its shine. (No? I just made that up? Whatever.) That’s why hardboiled protagonists of crime novels came up with this term, to let the world know how essential a high-quality apple is to social order.
6. Booby-hatch (n.): mental hospital; loony bin; insane asylum
Ex. Stacy’s mom was actually pretty delusional, so they sent her to the booby-hatch.
I know what you’re thinking, but a booby-hatch is not some nightmarish room filled with blue-footed booby birds or floating female breasts. Rather, it’s where the police send the criminals if they don’t end up in the next place first. . .
7. Cold storage (n.): jail
Ex. Send that cold-blooded killer where he belongs: cold storage.
Comparing jail to a “cold storage” bin may be the least threatening way of describing jail I have ever heard. Are we imprisoning criminals or ice cream cones?
8. The Weeps (n.): tendency toward crying
Ex. I can’t go to school today, Mom. I’ve got the weeps.
The weeps is really “a tendency toward crying,” but making it sound like some sort of illness gives it a greater dramatic effect. “I heard that Amy got the weeps by watching too many rom-coms. She’s still sniffling, but she’s on her way to recovery.”
9. Browse (v.): make out; kiss
Ex. I wanted to browse with James and not in the library, if you catch my drift.
The potential for hilarious library puns here cannot be ignored. Feel free to suggest your own.
10. Hoopla spreader (n.): con man; faker; liar; pretender; deceiver
Ex. “Liar, liar, pants on fire” is so last year. We say “hoopla spreader” now.
I fear that this phrase is so awesome, it will encourage people to spread lies in hopes of being given this label. Feel free to prove me wrong. Or right. It is a pretty fantastic phrase. I wouldn’t mind hearing it more often.
Granted, many of these terms were used only once in such novels, but that hasn’t stopped me from imagining them in hardboiled monologues, and it shouldn’t stop you either.