Whiz Mob.

A decade ago, the New Yorker published a profile by Adam Green (January 7, 2013 issue; archived) of “a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability” named Apollo Robbins; the following passage is full of Hattic goodness:

In pursuit of his craft, Robbins has ended up incorporating principles from such disparate fields as aikido, sales, and Latin ballroom dancing. He is a devotee of books like Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” and has also immersed himself in the literature of criminal lore. The book that made the greatest impression on him was a paperback, published in 1964, called “Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Patterns,” by David W. Maurer, a professor of English who devoted his life to the study of raffish subcultures, before apparently killing himself, in 1981. Robbins loved the vivid trade lingo in “Whiz Mob,” and he continues to pepper his conversation with such terms as “pit” (inside jacket pocket) and “prat” (side pant pocket), “skinning the poke” (removing the cash from a stolen wallet and wiping it off before tossing it) and “kissing the dog” (the mistake of letting a victim see your face). Reading about how street pickpockets operated, Robbins was gratified to discover that he had arrived at similar methods intuitively.

Street pickpockets generally work in teams, known as whiz mobs or wire mobs. The “steer” chooses the victim, who is referred to generically as the “mark,” the “vic,” or the “chump,” but can also be categorized into various subspecies, among them “Mr. Bates” (businessman) and “pappy” (senior citizen). The “stall,” or “stick,” maneuvers the mark into position and holds him there, distracting his attention, perhaps by stumbling in his path, asking him for directions, or spilling something on him. The “shade” blocks the mark’s view of what’s about to happen, either with his body or with an object such as a newspaper. And the “tool” (also known as the “wire,” the “dip,” or the “mechanic”) lifts his wallet and hands it off to the “duke man,” who hustles away, leaving the rest of the mob clean. Robbins explained to me that, in practice, the process is more fluid—team members often play several positions—and that it unfolds less as a linear sequence of events than as what he calls a “synchronized convergence,” like a well-executed offensive play on the gridiron.

If a crew of pickpockets is like a football squad, then its star quarterback is the “cannon,” an honorific generally reserved for pickpockets skilled enough to ply their trade without the help of a team. This is also known as “working single o.” Robbins works single o. He is his own steer, stall, shade, and duke man, though, unlike street criminals, he lets his victims know that he will be picking their pockets.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I don’t see Maurer’s 1964 book among the sources to Jonathon Green’s dictionary, but he does use Maurer’s earlier book, The Big Con, of 1940.

  2. It reminds me of London thieves’ cant and Polari.

    And to a non-linguist, the mention of Hattic had me rushing to wiki (new verb coinage?) the word to find out something new and fascinating, so thank you for that.

  3. Heh. My pleasure! It’s a silly joke, but we at the Hattery enjoy it.

  4. A while back, I did a Google Scholar search of Maurer-related publications (from American Speech and other journals, all of which were in JSTOR). Here’s a list of all the titles:

    The Argot of Confidence Men
    The Argot of Forgery
    The Argot of the Dice Gambler
    The Argot of the Faro Bank
    The Argot of the Moonshiner
    The Argot of the Three-Shell Game
    The Argot of the Underworld
    The Argot of the Underworld Narcotic Addict
    ‘Australian’ Rhyming Argot in the American Underworld
    Carnival Cant: A Glossary of Circus and Carnival Slang
    Criminal Monickers
    ‘A Dictionary of the Underworld’
    Jody’s Chinese Relations
    “Junker Lingo,” By-Product of Underworld Argot
    Kentucky Moonshine: An Appreciation
    The Lingo of the Good-People
    Manuscript Glossaries of the American Vernacular
    David Maurer (1905-1981): A Memoir
    New Words: Where Do They Come from and Where Do They Go?
    A Postscript to ‘Hubba-Hubba’
    Prostitutes and Criminal Argots
    Schoonerisms: Some Speech-Peculiarities of the North-Atlantic Fishermen
    The Speech of American Subcultures
    Underworld Place-Names

    He really liked the term “argot”, didn’t he?

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Unfortunately we will never see ‘On my Nelly: the Autobiography’.

  6. I just had a doubt about the pronunciation of argot and turned to onelook. Dictionaries all favour ˈɑːʳgoʊ but most allow ˈɑːʳgət as a US variant. (LPD2 also allows it and ˈɑːʳgɒt for UK.) However, AHD5 has Usage Note:

    The pronunciation of argot as (är′gət) was long considered acceptable and has historically been included in most dictionaries. However, it is falling out of favor; in our 2005 survey, 75 percent of the Usage Panel found that pronunciation unacceptable.

  7. Interesting; I guess it’s like valet in that regard.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    For me argot would be drawn to Margot with first syllable stress, long o and silent t. Filet has first syllable stress, second vowel schwa and t pronounced. Chalet (and ballet) has first syllable stress, second vowel long and t silent. I am now confused about valet (Do I say it like chalet? Do I say it like filet or wallet?).

  9. John Cowan says

    Eliza: See this explanation of Hattics vs. Hittites on this blog for more information.

    Margot with first syllable stress, long o and silent t

    As Margot Tennant said (perhaps apocryphally) to Jean Harlow when Harlow mispronounced Tennant’s given name: “No, no; the ‘t’ is silent, as in ‘Harlow’.”

    I am now confused about valet

    The general principle is that the final-stress no-final-/t/ version of these words is American English; I, for example, pronounce all of them that way. (However, fillet, which has a vast variety of senses focused on ‘strip’, gets the fully anglicized initial-stress final-/t/ version.) Valet magazine, which is about menswear, favors the fully anglicized version. Of course, very recent imports like paletot ‘jacket (loose for men, fitted for women)’ are never “pale-tot”, but even there the stress varies: final in the U.S., initial elsewhere. (Sometimes, when initial stress seems intolerable, as in giraffe, the word becomes more or less monosyllabic in British English, thus jraaf.)

  10. “Filet” is an American spelling for an American pronunciation. I say and write “fillet”. I have never pronounced Filet-O-Fish.

    For “argot” I think I currently prefer ˈɑːʳgət. Perhaps I have a fear of somehow confusing it with “Argo”.

  11. John Cowan says

    “Filet” is an American spelling for an American pronunciation.

    Up to a point, Minister. Netting or lace with square interstices is spelled filet (but I don’t know how it’s pronounced outside the U.S.), and filet mignon is everywhere pronounced Frenchwise, at least according to the dictionaries.

  12. Owlmirror says

    I had no idea that “argot” was French, and, as noted above, if I’d heard it pronounced with silent “t”, I’d have thought of a Greek ship.

    (“The Argo of the Underworld” — a boat on the Styx? Charon’s ferry?)

    For me, filet will usually have a silent “t” (“Fish filet! Fresh today!”), but fillet will have the “t” pronounced.

    And fillet will always remind me of Sun Wukong, because that was the word used for the seemingly decorative unremovable headband that gives him an ultramigrane when the correct mantra is pronounced.

  13. I think US “filet mignon” is in UK and Ireland just called fillet steak. separatedbyacommonlanguage notes
    many differences for cuts of beef.

  14. David Marjanović says

    paletot ‘jacket (loose for men, fitted for women)’

    Oh! Russian пальто (“coat”, final stress, indeclinable!) is obviously from French, but I had no idea what the original might be.

    many differences for cuts of beef

    Like between Germany and Austria (codified in EU regulations).

  15. Owlmirror: yes! Anthony Yu used some rare words in his translation, which I don’t doubt are completely justified. Do you know if Waley used “fillet” as well?

    The OED’s fillet n. 1 includes meanings related to ‘head band’ (ultimately < L. filum), going back to 1327, and to ‘loins’, going back to 1400 or so. I don’t see the semantic connection. It seems that the OED tries to do so by extending meaning 5a ‘muscle’, but that meaning is attested only in 1541 “Excessive multitude of humors..do extende the muscules or fyllettes,” and 1543 “A muscle is a membre compounde of synnowes, ligamentes, and fleshie fyllettes or as it were thredes, fylled wᵗ fleshe.” The meaning ‘One of the thick slices into which a fish is easily divided; also, a thick slice of meat, tongue, etc.’ (6a) is attested as early as 1430; the first attestation applying to fish is from 1725.

  16. Owlmirror says

    @Y: Indeed!

  17. Oh! Russian пальто (“coat”, final stress, indeclinable!) is obviously from French, but I had no idea what the original might be.
    The word was also loaned into German. Duden has it as obsolescent and even notes an Austrian pronunciation variant. I mostly know the word from 19th century literature and from the rhyme Immer lustig, immer froh, wie der Mops im Paletot. (The rhyme is older than the song, the song just uses the then well-known phrase.)

  18. Stu Clayton says

    @Hans, many thanks for another trip down memory lane (the 70s in my case, not the 30s) with the Comedian Harmonists. “Froh wie der Mops im Pa-le-to” – ich brech zusammen.

  19. the 70s in my case, not the 30s
    Same for me 🙂 Their songs were still played on the radio now and then when I was a child.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Never encountered it.

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