Green’s Dictionary of Slang News

April 2018 Update + Hero of Slang 8: Billy Rowe

Welcome to the sixth and latest update to the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.


As ever, some statistics: research over the last three months has added 301 new slang terms, 377 entries have been predated as to their currently recorded ‘first use’ and 2,775 new citations – including ante-dates, inter-dates and post-dates to reflect the continuing use of many terms –  have been uploaded. The database currently offers 54,873 headwords (within which are nested over 133,000 discrete words and phrases, underpinned by approximately 630,000 citations). All of this new material can be seen by subscribers; the changes that are reflected by the predates  are also shown in alterations in the approximate dating used in the absence of citations: for instance ‘late 19C’ to ‘early 19C’, ‘1980s+’ back to ‘1940s+’, and so on. But as ever, for those who want or need to access the detailed and continually evolving and expanding heart of the data, we have to recommend a subscription.


For an overview, with the fruits of the last quarter’s research in chronological order, all users of the dictionary can go here. This uses the same software as the Timelines of Slang. As usual the research has focused largely on newspaper databases, notably that held by the British Library, the US Library of Congress and, for Australia, Trove. These, by their nature, tend to look backwards in time, but there is also an on-going accretion of up-to-date slang.


New terms are marked in red, ante-dates in blue. The format has been improved: entries now link to the specific part of an entry, its sense and where pertinent its homonym number. Unfortunately the software does not permit click-through access (this is in development) , but users will be able to see which part of an entry has improved.



‘You’re not the black Winchell, you’re Billy Rowe’


Does anyone under 75 remember Walter Winchell any more? The small-time hoofer turned much-feared doyen of New York City gossip, friend of Damon Runyon and J. Edgar Hoover,  hater of Hitler, scourge of communism, the malicious spider who presided over an unrivaled web of showbiz and society whispers, the man whose life was (lightly) caricatured in the movie The Sweet Smell of Success where Burt Lancaster portrayed the ogre-like chatterbox and Tony Curtis a self-abasing gofer. At his peak, either side of 1940, 50 million adult Americans either read the syndicated column or listened to the radio show. Two-thirds of the adult population. And by 1955, yet another victim of TV with its very different demands and stars, and tainted by his sucking up to hard-right McCarthyism, Winchell had fallen.


If Winchell is a ghost, then what of his African-American peers? Dan Burley at the Amsterdam News in New York or, better known at the time but seemingly wholly lost beyond the history-books today, Billy Rowe, also living in the Apple (opposite Harlem’s celebrated Hotel Theresa, favoured by many of the celebs he feted), but published in the Pittsburgh Courier. Rowe had started working for the Courier in 1937 and continued until the early Fifties, when he passed the column over the his wife Izzy. He was christened ‘the black Winchell’, but his friend Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champ, pooh-poohed that: ‘you’re not the black Winchell, you’re Billy Rowe.’ Still, the similarities couldn’t be denied. With its focus on show business, particularly the world of the big bands such as those led by Duke Ellington or Count Basie, the column paralleled Winchell’s obsessions (though sport, rigorously segregated, was still awaiting its breakout black stars). Sometimes it was purportedly written by his ‘girl Friday,’ his secretary, or by showbiz guests. Sometimes it even echoed Winchell’s trademark ellipses to separate the succession of one or two sentence stories. Like Winchell, Rowe relished sounding off about politics, in his case America’s continuing institutional racism, known as Jim Crow. He campaigned continually, whether it was against lynchings, the segregated role of World War II black troops in an army dominated by officers from the South, the poverty of the Northern ghettoes or the refusal of Hollywood to offer black actors little other than stereotyped, demeaning roles. To read Rowe in 1938 is depressingly similar to looking at contemporary media, even if there is now a lynching memorial in Alabama, and #BlackLivesMatter. And if Winchell played courtier to Hoover’s FBI, riding round in a car equipped with a police radio, Rowe was briefly appointed an assistant police commissioner in New York. Like Winchell’s role, this was cosmetic: it was seemingly hoped that co-opting the columnist might tone down the ever-hostile relations between the law and the citizens of Harlem.


Winchell and his black peers also played another role: lexicographer, or at least recorder of words, usually slang. Winchell was a populist, so was his language and whether its subjects liked the column or not, those he addressed on the radio as ‘Mr and Mrs America’ treated his texts in a populist way. A biographer recalled that ‘people began to read Winchell for his new coinages the way fans read the sports section for the latest scores.’


That few Winchellisms survived is unsurprising. Their identification with their creator was simply too intimate. It was fine for his ellipsis-laden column to offer such synonyms for marriage as ‘welded,’ ‘merged,’ ‘middle-aisled,’ and ‘Lohengrined.’ And for divorced to to be recast as ‘telling it to a judge,’ ‘wilted,’ ‘this-and-that-way,’ ‘Reno-vating,’ ‘straining at the handcuffs,’ and ‘have phfft.’ It hardly worked in someone else’s mouth; the majority of Winchell’s terminology was less slang than word-play. The advent of a baby, in Winchellese, were not merely birth but a ‘blessed event,’ ‘getting storked,’ ‘blessed expense,’ ‘bundle from heaven,’ and ‘infanticipating’. Lovers  were ‘that way,’ ‘blazing,’ ‘on the verge,’ ‘uh-huh,’ ‘Adam-and-Eveing it,’ ‘man-and-womanizing it,’ and ‘cupiding.’ On it went. When Winchell dipped into mainstream slang – pash (passion), shafts (legs), giggle-water (hard liquor) – he was on safer ground, but his own coinages lacked staying power. Winchell’s star was guttering out by the mid-50s and so was his personal lexis.


Meanwhile Burley, along with the bandleader Cab Calloway, published glossaries of contemporary black slang, currently known as ‘jive talk’. The terms from Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive (1944) are here and Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary (1944) here. Rowe created no glossary, and never brought the terms he found together, but in many cases his was the use that predated both his peers. As Calloway noted of his own work, many of its terms came directly from Billy’s columns.


Of those columns that have been read Rowe offers 256 examples of slang, of which 138, more than 50%, represent what is currently the first recorded use. He overlaps with both his black contemporaries, again regularly predating them. These 67 terms represent words and phrases that had yet to be seen, at least in print. They reflect the world his column celebrated: the big bands, the stage, hotels, clubs and places to eat and drink. There are names of cities, times of the day and parts of the human body. If they are often variations on long-established themes – fowl for a woman, carpet for the hair, the extensions of scoff for cafes – that is the way slang works. If it lacks one of slang’s basic ingredients – sex – then such were the standards of the time. Though Rowe, like Winchell, could and would come close to the censor’s edge and in pursuit of a good story neither seemed very solicitous of other people’s relationships.


Some of Rowe’s terms seem entirely new: among them are binder, for the contract a performer signed (and which bound them to management), ballyhatch, a prison (a variation on booby hatch which meant jail as well as an asylum), the evocative from stomp to conk (from foot to head, and thus completely), main on the hatch (one’s wife or husband) and the incomprehensible eafcliff, a fool (but surely not a Cockney-ed pronunciation of Emily Brontë’s anti-hero). These, while they might or might not have lasted, were far more qualified as ‘slang’ than were Winchell’s word-play and puns.


all wet (infatuated with)
armful (a girlfriend)
ballyhatch (a prison)
binder (a contract)
board beater (a dancer)
boot (to perform)
bright and black (day and night)
bring down (to excite sexually)
bust one’s conk (to go to sleep)
buzzer (a warning)
carpet (the hair)
castle of grease (a cafe)
chill (to amaze)
defenders (the hands)
doss-joint (a hotel)
ducat queen (the cashier in a ticket office)
eafcliff (a fool)
ether box (a radio)
figures (‘policy’ or numbers gambling)
fowl (a woman)
from bright to black (a day)
from stomp to conk (from top to toe / completely)
gap (to read / look at)
gapper (an onlooker)
gum (to confess)
hasher (the mouth)
have one’s hip boots unlaced (to relax)
hide-beater (a drummer)
house of many nods (a hotel)
Indian act (a state of anger)
jumper (something exciting)
kick (to hand over)
lay some iron (to tap-dance)
main on the hatch (one’s husband or wife)
main pad (the main street)
mitt (to place / set down)
moon time (night-time)
nix (to conclude)
nix out on (to murder)
outer vine (an overcoat)
pad (a speakeasy)
put on the jive (to amuse others)
Quaker City (Philadelphia)
raisers (one’s parents)
receivers (the ears)
rester (a seat)
riff (a state of being)
rough (25 cents)
scoff board (a table)
scoff joint (a cafe)
scoff pad (a cafe)
sin soup (liquor)
skin-man (a drummer)
skin-shake (to meet)
slammer stooge (a ticket taker)
Smoketown (Pittsburgh, PA)
Smoky City (Pittsburgh, PA)
snap one’s cap (to please, to appeal to)
snatch one’s wig (to alarm / amaze)
spank the ivories (to play the piano)
sun time (day-time)
Tan Town (Detroit, MI)
tickers (hours/ minutes / time)
time-jumper (the heart)
tip one’s mitt (to reveal oneself)
tooter (a brass instrument)
tub beater (a drummer)