A Hard-Boiled Slang Glossary for
Something More Than Night
My novel Something More Than Night has two narrators. One of them, Bayliss, has taken it upon himself to embody the persona of a hard-boiled detective—sort of a poor man's Philip Marlowe. He embraces this persona to the extent that he speaks in a manner completely distinct from any other character in the book: although the story takes place on a future Earth as well as in the Pleroma (a theology-free Heaven), Bayliss talks like a character in a 1930s noir story.
It was a fun writing challenge to set for myself.
It was also a hell of a lot of work.
It meant reading widely (and taking in some wonderful old films) while making comprehensive notes on the vocabulary and phraseology. And then distilling those notes into a glossary that I could consult while writing.
That document grew to 80 pages in length. It contains over 750 definitions.The glossary comprises my personal notes about noirish language, including speculation about more obscure terms and inferences based on context. While some elements of noir and hard-boiled slang are straightforward, or at least familiar to contemporary readers because of their (over)use to flag a particular style or suggest period dialogue (particularly the word "dame," which doesn't appear as often as one would think) I discovered it's rather diverse, and some of it is surprisingly opaque. When you go back and read the source material, it quickly becomes clear that writing a noir pastiche requires far more than sprinkling the occasional "dame," "bub," and "smackeroo" into the dialogue. Nevertheless, there weren't a great many reliable and comprehensive online resources when I went looking.
Although there are a few, most notably the fine Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes (which appears to have been largely duplicated here) and the Flappers' Dictionary, they lack contextual examples, which I felt I needed. (Many of the phrases are downright incomprehensible, or easily misconstrued, when taken out of context.) The delightful World Wide Words came to my rescue once or twice, but even this generally superb resource lacked the particular focus necessary for my project. I had been advised to pick up the book Straight From the Fridge, Dad - A Dictionary of Hipster Slang. It's another great resource, and a very impressive piece of research, but unfortunately it wasn't terribly useful to me because it covers a period slightly later and a culture a bit removed from what I was going for. (One extremely comprehensive piece of slang scholarship in general is Jonathon Green's multivolume Green's Dictionary of Slang on Historical Principles, which I discovered about nine months after SMTN was published. Green's dictionary covers centuries, rather than the particular period of interest to me. It has also given rise to some fun timeglider websites.)
Furthermore, other resources (such as those cited above) list their entries alphabetically—which is only useful if you're reading a noir story and need to find the definition of an unfamiliar term. It is singularly unhelpful if you're seeking to write in a noir style, and therefore need to perform "reverse lookups". So, in the end, I created my own glossary.
However, other references contain numerous entries that do not appear here, and vice versa. One reference is not a superset of another.
This glossary is broken into 10 broad categories of varying lengths, plus a list of references. Here's the table of contents:
Drinking / Drugs / Drug Use
Weapons / Violence
Greetings / Goodbyes / Get Losts / Generic Addresses
Police Work / Jail / Crime
Money / Valuables / Estimations of Value
Body Parts / Bodies / Health
Sex / Sexuality
Generic Actions & Activities
These categories just happened to be the easiest and most useful way for me to split the glossary into chunks. Breaking it down with a finer granularity would have been possible, but more work than it was worth; this set of categories proved ideal for minimizing the amount of paging around I had to do when searching for just the right word or phrase to stuff into Bayliss's kisser. You might also notice that the category boundaries are rather permeable; they're not hard and fast. Certain entries appear in more than one category, depending on how I thought I might use them in the novel. And some entries appear more than once owing to reclassification or cut-and-paste mistakes! Many entries in the glossary never appear in the text of SMTN. But, of course, I couldn't know ahead of time what I'd eventually need, so I tried to vacuum up everything.
You might wonder why I bothered to include certain terms or phrases when their meaning is self-evident. Terms like "nut" are well-known to us today, and still in common use. But that's not the kind of question that arises when you're trying to write in the style of a particular period! In that situation, the question is reversed: was a particular word in common usage back then? By including common or obvious terms in the glossary, I assured myself that certain "modern" phrases wouldn't be out of place in Bayliss's patter.
Please bear in mind that this page was converted to HTML from a Microsoft Word document: a process that can be really onerous. So I'm sure there are formatting errors. I'll try to cull them out as I review this from time to time. Feel free to leave a note in the comments to the associated blog post (here) if your find a format error; I'll try to go in and fix the ones people identify.
The vocabulary of these works is a product of its time. That is to say, extremely sexist and not a little bit racist in places. I've omitted the more objectionable terms when the meaning was, I thought, clear enough to me; in other places, a phrase was so unusual, or my translation so tentative, that I kept a phrase in the glossary in spite of its potential connotation.
Each word or phrase and its definition is accompanied by one or more examples of its use in context and the appropriate bibliographic references. Any work used to generate a context quote for the glossary is cited. However, the reference list is not a comprehensive record of the background reading/viewing for Something More Than Night. I consulted additional works to get a sense of the style and tropes of these stories, but these are the references that gave rise to the text of the glossary.