Grant Barrett has a column in The Star (of Malaysia) called “Welcome to Slang City” that features terms originating in New York City, that hotbed of linguistic innovation. Some of them are fairly boring, like (taxi) medallion and gridlock (though I was astonished, on looking them up in the OED, to find that the former is not attested before 1960 and the latter before 1980), but others are wonderful:

A term you will still see occasionally is highbinder, which in the early 1800s meant a violent criminal or thug. The word was taken from the name of the High-binders, an Irish gang.

Highbinder was later used to refer to a member of a secret Chinese criminal gang, especially an assassin. By 1890 it referred to a slimy – disreputable or untrustworthy – politician….

A word that thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s in New York City but now appears to have completely fallen out of the language is lobbygow.

In a well-known murder trial in 1914, one of the witnesses described a lobbygow as “a pal and a friend willing to do almost anything he is told”. Early police literature describes lobbygows as white men who run errands for the powerful Chinese underworld bosses.

By the 1930s, a lobbygow was a person who would lead tourists on slumming tours of Chinatown. The middle and upper classes could get a first-hand look at how the lower class lived. Lobbygows were believed to be as likely to lead someone to a planned mugging as they were to show them opium dens.



  1. Barry Popik has some more on gridlock. The Safire column to which he refers is here. (One can also probably get it without paying through a library with some variation on E.g. A search of the NYT archives does indeed show an explosion of gridlock right at the beginning of April 1980 due to the transit strike.

  2. “Gridlock” took off like a rocket because it immediately found uses in all kinds of non-transportation settings (legislation, for example), so it does seem like it’s been around longer than since 1980. (By October that year, it was the title of a TV movie.

  3. I probably could have done better than “medallion” but the section of the Malaysia Star that the column runs in is for English-learners, so I wanted at least some current terminology in there. Something they might actually put to use or read in New York City newspapers, unlike “highbinder” and “lobbygow.” I had a lot more on those last two but I chopped them to the quick to make them fit.
    On the other hand, I bet I could write 800 words about taxi medallions that would make you cry. 🙂

  4. Oh, I wasn’t complaining—I understood why you included them—just making a distinction.

  5. It’s not a new word, but the word “likability” exploded in political coverage in 2000. Gore was supposedly unlikeable.

  6. “lobbygow” = lou bak gau? (lao bai gou) – old white dog
    With regard to slang here’s something fun:
    He’s not a specialist and neither am I, but his etymologies look at least as solid as the ones he cites and discards.
    He doesn’t mention it, but etymology was a comedic genre at one time in Irish literature.

  7. Sorry, but Cassidy is a crank pure and simple. See this post.

  8. Actually, it’s the post that’s crap. The etymologies are haphazard and the corrsspondences are all over the map? Too bad; there are lots of good Hiberno-English examples of the same thing, not controversial at all. Some of his shit is crap, some of it is reasonable. Part of it is the way borrowing works in general; it is hardly ever as neat as the changes that occur with inherited material. Do you think “Smackover, AR” follows the normal rules of correspondence between French and English – to the extent any exist? Matisoff had some similar examples betwen various langauges in SE Asia. I’m sure a little digging would turn up a lot of examples between Englsih and American languages, going in both directions.

  9. Are you Cassidy posting under an assumed name? He apparently does that. In any case, sorry, but if you’re not him you know nothing about how etymology works. (Same goes, of course, if you are him.)

  10. I am not him. He is a piker, but even a blind cat can catch a mouse. You can’t dismiss all the parallels he draws so easily. There must be hunfdreds of borrowings that are just a sshaky. Add to that the nature of slang itself, whic half the time is code, and makes an effort to confuse outsiders.
    Are you going to try to say the American expression “every swinging dick” is not a pun on “gach podach”?

  11. David Marjanović says

    An Irish word that starts with p? We’re talking about the language that borrowed Latin planta in the sense of “family tree” as clann because it simply had no p. What have I missed?

  12. Type in “paca” at , and click on “pacaire”, then “pachaille” and so on for lots of modern Irish words starting with p. The P/Q split was a *long* time ago, and /p/ has had the time to arise again as a phoneme.

  13. I’ve never heard of a “taxi medallion”. Hear in Ireland they’re called “taxi plates” (in Irish: pláta).

  14. Some of them are fairly boring, like (taxi) medallion and gridlock (though I was astonished, on looking them up in the OED, to find that the former is not attested before 1960 and the latter before 1980)

    The OED has antedated the former by a considerable margin; here are the first three citations:

    1925 Yonkers (N.Y.) Herald 11 Mar. 14/1 Gus Hasrato, 22, of 41 Groshon Avenue, arrested yesterday..for operating a taxicab which did not have on it a medallion showing that the owner had complied with the city ordinance, was given a suspended sentence.
    1937 Brooklyn Daily Eagle 31 Mar. 9/4 Charles E. Gunn, president of the L.C.M. Transportation Co., petitioned the court for a writ of mandamus, directing the police department to re-issue 49 taxicab medallions which he surrendered last December.
    1960 N.Y. Times 4 June 47/3 ‘Bootleg’, or illegal cabs do not have medallions.

    I was struck by “Groshon Avenue” in the 1925 cite; the rare surname Groshon is apparently anglicized from French Grosjean.

  15. Are you going to try to say the American expression “every swinging dick” is not a pun on “gach podach”?

    What an odd exchange that was with “Jim” above. He must have meant bodach (eDIL here), from bod, “penis” + the suffix -ach.

  16. What an odd exchange that was with “Jim” above.

    Yes indeed; I shook my head all over again reading it today. I still suspect it was Cassidy.

  17. 41 Groshon Avenue is for sale for $450,000.

  18. “What a dump!” [B. Grable]

  19. Yeah, if Gus Hasrato lived there I’m not surprised he was arrested for operating a taxicab illegally.

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