Home / General / The Criminal Element, circa 1859

The Criminal Element, circa 1859


This selection from New York Police Chief George Matsell’s Vocabulum, or the Rogue’s Lexicon, a collection of criminal slang, is amazing. It’s available here in its entirety. Here are some words for you. See if you can work them into conversation tomorrow.

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.

And that’s just A through D of the excerpt.

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  • NonyNony

    I am totally adopting the phrase “Victualling Office” into my personal vocabulary. “I’m not putting on weight – it’s just that the victualling office is undergoing an expansion these days.”

  • Vocabulum sounds like something an oral surgeon has to dispose of in a has-mat bag.

  • rea

    “Oh, dry up!” is still used, althogh somewhat old fashioned.

  • Billy Noodle is fabulous.

  • To be “in Alt” is a commonplace expression in Georgette Heyer novels and means to be happy. Although she may have made up some of her lingo a lot of it is to be found in Brewer’s Dictionary or Partridges. The Bread basket is still in use (I think) for the stomach. The phrase “to cut your eyes” at someone is something my mother, who was raised in DC when that was a more southern town, says. “Don’t cut your eyes at me” means “don’t give me a funny/suspicious glance.” I agree with Rea that the phrase “dry up” is definitely something people in their 70’s and 80’s now might say.

    • Mad Monk

      The Rickfords’ nice write up, “Cut-eye and Suck-teeth” can be found on JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/stable/539442). Not sure about “Cut-eye”, but “Suck-teeth” is alive and well in the Caribbean.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    I like the ‘bag of nails’ myself. think that was the name of a London club where Hendrix, the Who, etc hung out as well. wonder if this is where the name of the club came from

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    Not sure what happened to the first draft of this comment…

    This is awesome. I love these old phrases, though I probably will forget them before I can actually use them.

    On a related note, I saw something that some people here might be interested in, today. Forgotten Books, which is an alternative to Google books:

    The Basic Plus Side

    Its million-plus books going all the way back to the 1500s are browsable and searchable, images and all. Continuing membership is very affordable. And with it not only can you skim and read countless old books, you can also run searches on them, and build statistical charts with the results–similar to text analyzing features I taught and used back at Columbia University when I worked for the Digital Texts Service at the campus library, where I helped numerous researchers compile their own digital texts, search routines, and statistics. And now anyone can do it, online, for cheap. They’ve already compiled the search indexes, so building searches and statistics do not have the long processing delays you would have doing this in the raw (for more on how they built their indexes, and their limitations and capabilities, see here). You can also search for images in these books (of which there must be millions).

    You pay the site not only for the tools and services they provide, but also visual builds. Although the text of these books is public domain, the editions, reconstruction, formatting, and presentation are proprietary (e.g. the images are their reproductions, so they still have photography rights). So if you wanted to reuse images or page views, beyond fair use, you would still need to negotiate permissions through them. Otherwise…

    You can grab and read texts as PDFs, kindle, and any number of other versions. If you use the online book reader at the site, it has a bookmarks and notes function, much like a kindle. Dedicated mobile apps for the site are also in development. The number of books you can read or download per month is limited by the level of membership you subscribe to, but you can preview a large portion of every book without limit. And all the other features are unlimited use. They also sell paperback editions of most (and soon all) of their books–if you want to have a hard copy.
    You can see along the left margin at the site the many categories of books they have. I was most intrigued by their massive collection of esoteric titles: afterlife and immortality, alchemy, astrology, ciphers and codes, ESP and psychic phenomena, freemasonry and secret societies, magic and witchcraft, theosophy, unexplained phenomena. Thousands of titles. Think of the kinds of data (as well as entertainment) you can reap from a collection like that.

    The research ability in early American history is profound as well, so studying what people really were saying around the American Revolution or the Civil War is right there for you to search through. Other interesting subjects include books in philosophy, religion, ancient history, early science, languages (including dictionaries from other centuries, valuable for studying words as they have changed meaning; and books in languages other than English, including Spanish, Latin, Italian, French, and German), as well as fiction, and more. They also have a collection of administrative records (genealogy data, audits and surveys, minutes and reports).


    Overall Forgotten Books is superior to Google Books (which faces similar defects anyway). The ways you can employ it, the size of the collection, the variety of ways you can read books downloaded or viewed from it, the ability to bookmark and annotate, and the commitment to improve even what flaws it has over time (which I expect will go more rapidly the more subscribers they get), all combine with its relative affordability to make this a site at least worth taking a look at.

  • Mike L.

    “Surfeit the bloke with blue-plum,” is one of the greatest sentences I have ever seen.

    • Yeah, makes me wish they were all used in sentences.

      “That daft Billy Noodle grabbed a barking iron and it all went a bag of nails” or some such.

  • efgoldman

    Since you obviously delight in finding this stuff, now I’m wondering what kind of research my professors, way before the intartoobz and blogs, went around digging up. We would have had no clue, of course. I mean, there were odd things, like the counterpoint prof who tried to apply Fibonacci-series math to all of JS Bach’s music, but that was no secret, he intended to publish it.

    • Anna in PDX

      “the counterpoint prof who tried to apply Fibonacci-series math to all of JS Bach’s music”

      OK this is beyond wonderful. Really? Wow.

      Have you read that poem Alphabet by Inger Christensen? Published by New Directions.

      • efgoldman

        His intended publication took five feet of shelf (in the 60s – no word processing then). He died in the early 80s, the work was never published.
        He had had a stroke by the time I was in his class (early 60s), and so he stuttered, which meant it came out as “Fee-fee-fee-Fibonacci.”
        True story: there were two composition teachers (not including the theory department) on the faculty. They hated each other, and hadn’t spoken in maybe 25 years. So I would write a piece (in India ink with a pen) for my contemporary techniques course with one, then copy it and turn it in to the other one for composition. Maybe some day they’ll come take my degree back. I was never a real composer anyway, it was just the easiest major.

  • FMguru

    “BURNT OUT. Worn out roues; fellows that sorrow for the past, fear the future, and can only make the present endurable through means that are revolting to human reason”

    Huh, they had blog commenters back in 1859. Who knew?

    • I thought they were talking about nineteenth century viagra.

    • JenBob hasn’t aged a day.

  • To aimai’s point, I remember “dry up” as a common phrase from my long ago youth. I’m sure you could hear it 50’s era TV shows.

    And “bread bag” reminded me of “bread basket,” most frequently referred to as a place to be punched.

    Plus, I’m under 70, and WAAY under 80.

    • FMguru

      I vaguely recall Frank Burns using it as one of his hopelessly lame comebacks on MASH

    • rea

      I remember “dry up” as a common phrase from my long ago youth. I’m sure you could hear it 50′s era TV shows.

      That’s because you couldn’t say, “fuck off” on TV in those days.

    • TribalistMeathead

      I’m 34 and am only aware of “breadbasket” being an area of the body thanks to Operation.

  • ajay

    “Oh, dry up!” is still used, although somewhat old fashioned.

    But talking about running out of things to say – or forgetting what you were going to say – as “drying up” is perfectly common. (Or just “drying” in theatre slang.)

    Interesting too that some words that are perfectly common now needed explaining back then. Matsell didn’t think that his readers would know that “bolt” meant “to run away” or that “dapper” meant “well dressed” or that an “insider” was someone in the know or that to “kid” someone meant to fool them.
    Particularly interesting, “Egrotat” meaning “he is sick” is Latin – “aegrotat” – and is English public school/university slang. It was written opposite your name if you missed a lecture or exam due to illness.

    • There were a lot of interesring thieve’s cants that were mixtures of cockney rhyming slamg, borrowed gaelic, yiddish, backwards, pig latin, i forget the specific names of some of them but i have a dim memory that the word “argot” was a french underworld word or gypsy cant.

      • Here’s a brief bit from the wiki which all of you already know:

        It was commonly believed that cant developed from Romany. Etymological research now suggests a substantial correlation between Romany words and cant, and equivalents, in many European languages. However, in England, Scotland, and Wales this does not apply. The Egyptians, as they were known, were a separate group from the standard vagabonds, and cant was fully developed within 50 years of their first arrival in England. Comparison of Gypsy words in the Winchester Confessions taken in 1616 with modern Welsh Romany show high commonality. This record also distinguished between Gypsy and Cant words and again the attributions of the words to the different categories is consistent with later records.[2]
        There is doubt as to the extent to which the words in canting literature were taken from street usage, or were adopted by those wishing to show that they were part of a real or imagined criminal underworld. The transmission has almost certainly been in both directions. The Winchester Confessions indicate that Gypsies engaged in criminal activities, or those associated with them and with a good knowledge of their language, were using cant, but as a separate vocabulary – Angloromani was used for day to day matters, while cant was used for criminal activities.[2] A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the Gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.[3]

        Ken – House
        Bowsing ken – Alehouse
        Lag – Water
        Bene – Good
        Patrico – Priest
        Autem – Church
        Darkmans – Night
        Glymmer – Fire
        Mort – Woman
        Cove – Man[4

        • ajay

          Bowsing ken – Alehouse

          Bowsing = boozing, presumably. I would like it very much to be also related to “bowser” – a tanker truck carrying water or fuel – via the concept of drinking, but apparently they’re named after a guy called Sylvanus Bowser who invented the fuel pump.

        • Barry Freed

          Mort – Woman

          Is an old Indo-European word (Persian mard).

          Darkmans-Night and Glymmer-Fire are great.

  • smitty werbenmanjensen

    It smacks of Cockney rhyming slang, in its own way. Without, you know, the rhyming.

    • But rhyming slang often ended up just being an allusion, with one word standing in for the rhymeing couplet. I was also surprised, in reading the longer article at the link, that calling a woman a “rib” was seen as somehow theify or low class. I mean, maybe it was low class but it derives from the notion that Eve was made from Adam’s Rib. Its a biblical allusion and is made about a man’s wife, not his mistress.

  • Captain Bringdown

    Among my circle of teenage friends in 1980’s central California, “altitude adjustment” was a fairly common expression. Little did we know that the ruffians of Five Points beat us to it by over 100 years.

    • Everything old is new again. One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was John Dickson Carr. He wrote several great time travelling novels and in the foreword of one he discussed at length the history of some very old pieces of slang including “tell that to the marines” which, IIRC, he had found in some society lady’s diary from the 1800’s. Pig for police is also quite old.

      • I too was in my teens (and remain) a great fan of Carr’s two great English series detectives (Dr. Fell and H.M.), not so much of his Frenchman Bencolin, and can take or (mostly) leave most of his one-offs. Somehow, however, I had never read any of the time-travel stories until just a few years ago. I’m not sure I like them as much as you did (nor am I sure you’d still like them as much as you did), but I did quite like his appendices “for the curious” (which he also included in his non-time-travel historicals). It’s a pity that by the end of his career he could no longer decently suppress his reactionary politics (not that he had particularly suppressed his casual racism in several books at the beginning of his career: he really, really didn’t like jazz and Those People who played it, for instance), while having by then more or less exhausted his youthful genius at constructing impossible crimes. Oh well.

  • From the book:

    May the ruffian nab the cuffin queer, and let the copper twine with his kinchins around his colquarren

    Screw up the bloke, and that will stop his blasted red rag from chanting beef

    The knuck shook the swell of his fogle

    The bene cove sluiced their gobs with slim till they all snoozed in the strammel like sounders

    The burner bammed the flat with sham books, and his pal capped in for him

  • It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.

    • StagParty Palin

      Especially in Potrzebie.

      • Isn’t that Portzeebie?

        • efgoldman

          Potrzebie is right next to axolotl.

          • Hogan

            Good to know some of us are still familiar with the classics.

  • Halloween Jack

    I tend to be skeptical about so-called canonical lists of specialized lingo, as they include things that are sheerly improbable. I mean, “kitchen physic” for food? Really? I mean, I know about code switching to throw off eavesdroppers and such, but a number of these types of lists seem to be all about giving the reader a false sense of belonging to or having inside knowledge of a marginalized group that they don’t really know shit about. (See also the “diner lingo” and the “hanky code“, and compare to grunge speak.)

    • The diner lingo link is broken but the grunge speak one is fascinating. And what about valley girl speak?

      There are certainly regional dialects which make the jump to national or even international thanks to the movement of peoples and spread of cultural icons/films. But there are also, obviously, attempts to break the code which reflect a kind of moral panic about the growth of sub-cultures that are hidden from us. These subcultures can be gypsies, satanists, lesbians, gays, jews, or commies and if they don’t exist they often have to be thought up just to keep the straights enthralled.

  • Jon

    Very similar to this compendium, from 1811 England:


    almost too similar for comfort.

    • Ok but there’s always been an exchange between higher and lower, linguistically. And its alluded to in the foreword you link to that our young men of fashion are using foul language.

      Here’s an exemplar:

      Barrymore was born on 14 August 1769 in Marylebone, Middlesex, to Richard Barry, 6th Earl of Barrymore and Amelia Stanhope, daughter of William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington and the Lady Caroline Fitzroy. He succeeded his father as Earl of Barrymore on 1 August 1773 when he was only three. His mother placed him under the care of the vicar of Wargrave in Berkshire, where he grew up and later settled.
      He was educated at Eton College, and arrived with a sum of £1,000 in his pocket – a remarkable sum for a boy of his age. In addition to this he would regularly utilise the services of a London cab driver who would take him to London several times a week in order to satisfy his sexual appetite with a variety of ‘ladies of the night’. In addition to this, he was a noted prankster, an attribute which was greatly attractive to the mischievous and impressionable future George IV. One of his most favoured practical jokes would involve pretending to kidnap girls from the streets of London and place coffins outside of their houses with a view to terrifying their servants. His infamy as a gambler was considerable at the time, including his wager that he could consume a large live tomcat in one sitting, however, the great eccentric Lord Barrymore admitted defeat when faced with the feline.
      He was heavily in debt before marrying, but instead of “marrying into money” as was common at the time, he married Charlotte Goulding, niece of the infamous Letty Lade, and the daughter of a common sedan chair man on 7 June 1792. After his death the next year, when she was only eighteen years old, she remarried to Captain Robert Williams of the 3rd Foot Guards,[3] but she eventually “…passed…to the lowest grade of prostitution”[4]
      His sister Carolina (1768-?) was known as “Billingsgate”, due to her use of foul language.[5] Henry (1770–1823), his younger brother, was “Cripplegate”, due to a physical disfigurement.[5] His youngest brother Augustus (1773–1818) was nicknamed “Newgate”, after Newgate Prison in London.[5]

      • Halloween Jack

        his wager that he could consume a large live tomcat in one sitting

        There’s a rather obvious joke to be made there that I shall refrain from.

        • Born in a manor house in Marylebone,
          Only three when he came into his own…

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