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The language of Prohibition-era gangsters: knowing your goons from your gumshoes

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Although this blog has already covered a number of the interesting words and phrases associated with the speakeasies of 1920’s and early 1930’s America, the period still has a number of gems. As today marks the anniversary of the conviction of notorious Chicago-based gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, what better reason to revisit some of the linguistic oddities associated with the gangster scene of the period.

Gangster glossary

The violence in Chicago in that period influenced some of the slang of the time, with the term overcoat, as used to describe a coffin, being dubbed a Chicago overcoat. During the crime-laden Prohibition Era, many people found their way into a Chicago overcoat courtesy of Chicago typewriters – not homicidal typists, but machine guns (usually portrayed in popular culture as a Thompson sub-machine gun).  There was a range of other words which a mobster could use to refer to their firearm, such as gat, roscoe, rod, or heater (there’s nothing on record to suggest that there was ever a hilarious misunderstanding from having a name for a household fixture also mean firearm). There’s similarly an array of terms to describe murdering itself: you could plug somebody, or bump somebody off.

There were a number of colourful terms to describe the people involved in murder, bootlegging, racketeering, and the other crimes associated with this period. My personal favourite is goon, possibly derived from gony (meaning ‘boob’ or ‘simpleton’), and adapted to refer to a general thug. If you gathered a group of twenty or so thugs and ex-convicts together you would have yourself a goon squad. You could also be a hatchet man (originally used to describe specifically a Chinese assassin), a torpedo (professional gunman), or the less-euphemistically named trigger man. If you found yourself in the unenviable (or enviable?) position of being a woman who was romantically involved with a trigger man you could be called a moll (pet-form of the name Mary), which in this sense dates back to at least 1823, but which was also a term used for prostitutes in 17th-century London (perhaps in reference to Mary Magdalene).

From flatfoots to stool pigeons

If you thought however that 1920’s and 1930’s America was completely dominated by gangsters you would be all wet (completely wrong). On the other side were the lawmen trying to bring them to justice, and in keeping with the times there were also a slew of oddly specific terms to identify them. There’s the well-known term dick to describe a detective (possibly from a shortening of that term) or copper, to describe uniformed police who carried copper truncheons. Shamus was a term used to describe a private detective and has muddied origins. The two most likely sources for this term are either from a corruption of the Irish name Seamus (there were one or two Irish within American police forces in those days) or from the Yiddish word shamas which essentially means one who serves. Gumshoe and flatfoot were also used to refer to detectives or plainclothes officers, but what would really make a gangster sweat would be a visit from a g-man; a government agent.

One could imagine though that those who had most reason to be fearful during this era were those who informed on their gangster cohorts – the stool pigeons. One of the fullest descriptions of the term stool pigeon, which will also allow us to leave the mire of early 20th-century gangster slang on a jollier note than when we entered in a Chicago overcoat, can thankfully be given by King Creole and the Coconuts. Enjoy!

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