December 01, 2010

A glossary of hard-boiled slang

Last month the mouthpiece I got taking care of business for me out in California, he lets me know we’re behind the eight-ball. “You got to be straight with me, Vinny.” I tell him. “What’s it mean? Are we jake or are we in a jam?”

Actually what I said was “Vinny, every time someone says ‘we’re behind the eight-ball’, I never know, is that good or bad?”  Sadly un-hardboiled, but what’s a girl to do?

Well. Not long after, compiling a hard-boiled crime bookmark for our Libraries guys promotion, what did I come across but “Twists, slugs and roscoes: a glossary of hard-boiled slang” by William Denton, a web librarian in Toronto (hey, isn't that the same place the guy was from who made the list of Captain Haddock’s curses? Is this something to do with weather?). There it was, "behind the eight-ball", right between “beezer” (nose) and “bent car” (stolen car). If only I'd have known, it would have been eggs in the coffee.

According to Erle Stanley Gardner, in "Getting away with murder", a piece he wrote for The Atlantic which Denton reprints, that genius Dashiell Hammett’s dazzling command of criminalese was gained not so much from his time as a Pinkerton op, as we all thought, but from slang dictionaries. Apparently he even got the quintessential “shamus” from a dictionary, and here’s the startling claim: it’s not Irish, from Seamus, the cop on the beat, as I always thought, just as everyone did who’d ever seen a James Cagney movie or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but Jewish-American, although the precise origin escaped Gardner, to his frustration.

What? Shamus is Jewish?

I did some sleuthing around and it looks as though it might be true. An article published a few years back in the Jewish Daily Forward, “Bogie speaks Yiddish”, makes a convincing case that 'shamus’ comes from the Yiddish word for the synagogue beadle, “shammes”,  the person who knows everyone’s business, or, as the proverb has it, "I don’t need to know him," Ikh ken dem shammes un der shammes ken di gantze shtot, “I know the shammes and the shammes knows the whole town.”

syndetics-lcAn Irish version of  'shammes', pronounced with a long 'a' like the ubiquitous Seamus, did sprout on the streets of New York. But, reports the article (whereby its endearing title), in the great Howard Hawks film version of  Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart is asked what he does and replies “I’m a shamus”, he gives it the Yiddish pronunciation, rhyming it with Thomas. Always a class act, Bogie.

In the book, although Eddie’s “pug” calls Philip Marlowe a shamus, Marlowe never calls himself one. What he says is “I’m a sleuth”. Raymond Chandler is one of my favourite writers, and I've read everything he ever wrote. He spent his final years in my home town of La Jolla, which he called 'Esmeralda' in the book he set there, Playback. It's not a good book, but then he was in bad shape, adrift on a sea of alcoholism, having found no anchor to replace his beloved Cissy, pink-rinsed curls and all.

As my mother replied when I checked the address and found out it was next door to our dentist (a sort of Chandlerian character who would be smoking a cigar as you settled into the chair, although he wasn't illegally dispensing drugs ending in -caine like Chandler's dentists do, at least as far as I know), and said "I know he didn't go out much, but Dr. Eller might have caught sight of him through the window", "I don't think so dear, in those years he was really always horizontal.”

'Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

'Handsome too,’ she said, ‘And I bet you know it.'

I grunted.

'What’s your name?’

‘Reilly,’ I said. ‘Doghouse Reilly’.

‘That’s a funny name.’ She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.

‘Are you a prizefighter?’ she asked, when I didn’t.

‘Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.’

-- from The Big Sleep, first published 1939

Fantastic magazine photo which appeared in Life Magazine of real-life shamus and acquaintances

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30
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