You can’t outslick a superbabe: words popularized by pulp fiction
No, not Quentin Tarantino’s film, but the literary genre dubbed pulp fiction. These are mass-produced, highly popular books whose name is derived from the books’ material – poor quality, ‘pulpy’ paper. The books were inexpensive to make and therefore could be sold at low costs, allowing them to fly off the shelves.
While we can’t be certain about the whole origin story of these words, there is strong evidence to indicate that these pulp books launched many slang, underground, or otherwise niche terms into the more mainstream vernacular. Pulps often drew on the popular appeal of various underground communities, and adopted the vocabulary of those communities.
Thriller and detective pulp is replete with turns of phrase that pull us from our seat in front of our laptop in the 21st century and right into the hot interrogation seat of the first half of the 20th century. The words outslick and nerved are recorded as making their debut in the hard-boiled detective thrillers, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Honest Money and Raymond Chandler’s Finger Man respectively. And while this term has come to refer specifically to boxers, the first recorded use of the phrase to lead with his chin comes from Gardner’s other famous detective story Argos. The pulp fiction of Horace McCoy also gives us early literary examples of now-run-of-the-mill phrases, such as pour it on and screw around, giving these colloquialisms a place in ink and on paper.
We see words like murder gun and the grotesque slang term for an ambulance or hearse – the meat wagon – to accompany the array of dead bodies depicted in these crime and adventure pulps. We also see slang for drug use with nose candy and narcot, an abbreviation for narcotic, cropping up Dashiell Hammett’s fiction. Many words that seem to come from pulp paint a picture of the stereotypical male chauvinist, gawking at women, oscillating between objectifying talk of a woman’s looks, and a suspicion of women’s supposedly conniving ways. These books are populated with women who are leggy or even a few who surpass all the rest and acquire the title of superbabe. However, many of these books are rife with depictions of devious women, who are two-timing or who smoke-screen those around them.
The golden age of sci-fi, crime, and detective pulp novels is often indicated as 1896 to 1955. However, gay and lesbian pulp enjoyed an overlapping golden age that stretched a bit further into the second half of the 20th century. Rather than crime stories, these pulps focused on rather explicit relationships, love, and sexuality of and between queer individuals in the pre-Stonewall era.
There is certainly an irony to the fact that Odd Girl Out, a classic lesbian pulp novel-turned-series by the name The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, by Ann Bannon was the second best-selling paperback novel of 1957, a time when LGBT bars were regularly subject to brutal police raids, as queer relationships and gender non-conformity were outright criminalized. Yet there is perhaps some insight there – that amidst suppression and violence these worlds still thrive and books about them still sell. Bannon frequently discusses how she would venture into the West Village to go to lesbian and gay bars, clubs, and community spaces as a sort of field work that was both deeply personal as well as vocational. In accord, her book Beebo Brinker is noted as having an early recorded use of the word barhop. Bannon drew from the underground culture that she both explored and belonged to, using these experiences to craft her characters, her plots, and her vocabulary. Her pulp books are still some of the most popular in lesbian fiction today.
Vin Packer’s queer pulp, Don’t Rely on Gemini¸ so far offers the first instance of several astrological terms in English writing. As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s clear that some astrological associations have quite a far reach, considering the contemporary, well-broadcasted mistrust for those born under the Gemini sign. In this pulp we are introduced to Pisces and Libra as used to describe a person born under that zodiac sign rather than the zodiac sign itself, along with early citations of Taurean, Sagittarius, and Gemini.
Be it an illicit romance in the West Village or a drug bust in a small town, pulp readers are keyed into a technical, colloquial language with the ever-enticing allure of an underground, edgy, illegal world where much of the language is noted in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first recorded use. This insider language allows readers, both with and without familiarity to these terms, to feel that they are a part of the world that they are reading about, from the colorful descriptions down to the very level of the vocabulary and syntax.