Slang of the Times.

Megan Garber, Adrienne LaFrance, and Ian Bogost have a delightful post at Citylab [now available at The Atlantic] on how the Gray Lady has dealt over the years with the jargon of the young and/or underclass, presumptively unintelligible to its well-bred readership. They open with a quote from a recent article about a $25 penalty for pot possession in Washington, D.C.:

“A ticket when you just have a jay or something?” said Clifford Gray, a lifelong District of Columbia resident who is in his 20s, using a slang term for a marijuana cigarette. “I’m good with that.”

And they continue thus:

This—”a slang term for a marijuana cigarette”—was so delightfully, perfectly Timesian. Not a joint, mind you, but a marijuana cigarette! (In related Times-speak, a whip isn’t just a car but an automobile.)

And it made us wonder: What other terms had the paper of record decided to wordsplain in this way? What else, in the Times‘s more than 150-year history, had writers and editors decided to clarify as “a slang term for X”?

We decided to find out. We searched the paper’s archives—a corpus of news articles from 1851 to the present—for any and all instances of “a slang term for,” “slang for,” and “a slang word for.” We LOLed at the results. (“LOL” is a slang term for “laugh out loud.”)

Below, our random generator of 73 pieces of Times-defined slang, many of them long forgotten, many of them deserving of resurrection, and all of them revealing about the place and time that gave rise to them.

We marveled at the way these expressions—the ones we understood, anyway—captured the spirit of the era in which they were defined. It makes sense, for instance, that the Times defined acid (“a slang term for the drug LSD”) in 1970, grunt (“a slang word for an infantryman”) during the Vietnam War, diss (“a slang term for a perceived act of disrespect”) in 1994, and macking (“a slang term for making out”) in 1999.

One particularly memorable example is how the Times unpacked “punk” in 1977: “Slanguist Eric Partridge speculates that punk is hobo lingo to describe very stale bread, perhaps from the French pain. Punk, applied to a person, began as a slang term for a catamite, or boy kept by a pederast, and later extended to cover young hoodlums.”

You don’t have to click their link to know that the last quote is from William Safire; the first word gives it away. Needless to say, the first sentence is utter balderdash (to use a word Bill would have enjoyed), and you should never take Eric Partridge’s word for anything. Anyway, enjoy the random generator; Yoram, who sent me the link, also sent the full list (thanks, Yoram!), and for your delectation, here is the earliest citation:

1855. “I have found by [associating] of late with [criminals] and other low people, that Marianne is argot for guillotine, just as wipe is slang for handkerchief.”

(I have added the words in brackets from the original article, which is a very enjoyable read in its own right.) As Yoram says, it’s a pity they didn’t search for “argot” as well.


  1. “The Big City column on Saturday, about Sandra Fleming, a social worker for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York who visits her clients by motorcycle, misstated a slang term for a high-performance sport motorcycle. It is ‘crotch rocket,’ not ‘crash-rocket.’”

  2. Ross was sternly opposed to anecdotes about the Algonquin group, and when an excellent one required the use of the name Alexander Woollcott, he cursed awhile and said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do — we’ll misspell it.” —James Thurber, The Years With Ross

  3. “Eric Partridge speculates that punk is hobo lingo . . .”

    Does anyone have an idea about the origin of ‘hobo?’ The sources I have looked at have an unknown origin. It feels like some kind of a blend or clipped compound. Could the first syllable be a shorted ‘home’ or ‘homeless?’

    Apparently (from the early OED citations), it did not begin as a pejorative term.

  4. @GeorgeW: I wouldn’t consider “hobo” pejorative today, although I’m sure it does get its share of pejorative use. To men, “hobo” implies somebody that works for a living but doesn’t have a fixed home. “Tramp,” on the other hand, implies a moocher. “Drifter” encompasses both kinds, as well as others.

  5. Hobo.

    Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police. The wobblies (members of the I.W.W.) of the years following the war were hoboes but certainly not tramps or bums.

    —Mencken, The American Language 4th ed. (1937)

  6. marie-lucie says

    “Slanguist Eric Partridge speculates that punk is hobo lingo to describe very stale bread, perhaps from the French “pain”


  7. I do think of ‘hobo’ as pejorative (Southern AmE speaker). I would never refer to a homeless person as a hobo. But, I do agree that ‘tramp’ and ‘bum’ can be even more derogatory. A bum need not be homeless or itinerate, just lazy and worthless. ‘Tramp,’ likewise doesn’t need to be homeless and has taken on a moral, unconventional or nonconformist connotation (“The Lady is a Tramp”). A lady of “loose morals’ can be referred to as a tramp.


  8. This differentiation of “hobo,” “tramp,” and “bum” just came back to me:

    A hobo works and moves on. A tramp mooches and moves on. A bum mooches and sticks around.

  9. Roy Andrew Miller said hobo was from Japanese houbou ‘here and there’.

  10. “Roy Andrew Miller said hobo was from Japanese houbou ‘here and there’.

    So how would Americans in the 1930s, whose exposure to Japanese anything probably didn’t extend beyond Madama Butterfly, have been familiar enough with that expression to adopt it?

    “and you should never take Eric Partridge’s word for anything.”

    No, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day and “punk” as a term for catamite, young teenaged boy, someone insignificant and powerless (cf. “punk someone out”) looks pretty sound, since “punk” looks like it belongs to the P-K word family (peak, pick, pike, poke, punch, bung, probably fuck).

    But the bread thing is silly, especially when there is a word “punk” for dry rotted word (good for tinder), that looks a lot likelier

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    Hobo is current in AmEng by the 1890’s, which does not render a Japanese etymology impossible, but one would like to see some connecting-of-dots, e.g. evidence that is was first current among a subpopulation (sailors? workers on the Pacific coast?) unusually likely to have had relevant contact, if one were not to dismiss this out of hand as unscholarly speculation from a fellow who had some expertise in Japanese but no particular expertise in the history of AmEng slang. “Hobo” seems to be used semi-pejoratively (or perhaps semi-mythologically, rather than in reference to an actual genre of frequently-encountered individuals ) by my daughters and their peers (NYC suburbs, early 21st C.), but I haven’t really asked leading questions to tease out the exact semantic scope it is understood to have. There is essentially no freight rail service left in our little corner of the world, so the whole “riding the rods” aspect of traditional hobo-dom is something they would associate with old books. It is possible that some of the Mexican/Central American immigrants they see around town and nearby working hard at various sorts of blue-collar tasks pursue a somewhat loose and migratory lifestyle in between jobs — were not in the NYC area a few months ago and may not be a few months from now, but they see them when they are working, not when they’re not, and wherever they sleep is probably not a classic “hobo jungle” but a perhaps-not-fully-compliant-with-code de facto boarding house in a less affluent part of the region.

  12. Roy Andrew Miller said hobo was from Japanese houbou ‘here and there’.

    Frankly, that sounds like a million other worthless suggestions by people who happen to know some foreign language and think “Hey, English word X sounds a lot like Foreign word Y and I can imagine a semantic connection, so that must be the source!” without realizing the immense number of coincidental similarities out there.

    even a stopped clock is right twice a day and “punk” as a term for catamite, young teenaged boy, someone insignificant and powerless (cf. “punk someone out”) looks pretty sound

    But the catamite stuff was Safire, not Partridge; all he contributed was the bread thing.

  13. J. W. Brewer says

    “Punk” for (typically female) “strumpet, prostitute, etc.” goes back a number centuries although it was already perhaps largely obsolete by the time you got very far into 20th century in most varieties of English (although it is I think the best gloss for Yeats’ “Come swish around, my pretty punk” — yeah yeah, stop snickering about “swish,” Beavis), and an early 20th century shift of meaning to “catamite” in various sorts of socially-marginal male subcultures prone to developing their own slang/jargon (hobos, criminals, prisoners, etc.) is pretty easy to imagine.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    “Punk” for “badly-treated teenage male companion of an adult male hobo” (with sexual angle left implicit, but not THAT implicit) can be found at least as early as the awesomely named _The Booze Route: A Reform Book On Some of the Up-to-Date Evils of the Age_ (by John E. Main, copyright date 1906).

  15. “But the catamite stuff was Safire, not Partridge; ”

    Ah. Sorry. Safire. At least when he’s wrong, he’s wrong in a reasonable way.

  16. Rail only carries 20% of freight in the Northeast, but that’s not hay. Freight in NYC/LI.

    William Wycherly[‘s …] play of “Love in a Wood” gained so much applause, that he forever quitted his desire for the Roman Catholick Breviary, or the English Statutes at large. Pleasure every where invited him, and he obeyed her invitation. His chariot met the duchess of Cleveland’s coach in Pall-Mall. The immodest fair accosted him: “you, Wycherly, you are a son of a w―:” this rude salutation for the moment covered him with confusion, but recollection recognized the challenge she alluded to, which was a verse in a song in one of his plays*, and he drove furiously in pursuit of her to the park.

    * Love in a Wood — The Stanza runs thus:

    Where parents are slaves,
    Their brats cannot be any other,
    Great wits and great braves
    Have always a punk for their mother!

    —Mark Noble, A Biographical History of England […], Vol. I (1806)

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    It’s not that there’s no rail freight in the area broadly-speaking as a factual matter, it’s that there are no freight trains in the immediate conscious local experience of the kids in my particular community, because the derisory four freight trains a day (compared to hundreds of passenger trains, and derisory even if that means eight total because four in each direction) said to be crossing the Bronx/Westchester line are all on one of the four rail routes that cross that line (the other three being 100% passenger service) and that happens to be the one furthest from my house, whereas when I was a kid I probably saw trains (because not in an area where commuter rail was as much of a thing) less frequently but saw a mix of freight and passenger and when I visited my maternal grandparents could see/hear freight trains going by down at the end of their property. You can not infrequently (esp on a still night, when the sound carries) hear train whistles from my back yard, but they are all passenger trains on the Amtrak main line to/from Boston, where even the cheapest tickets are outside a hobo’s budget . . .

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