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These pages link to a rough HTML conversion of the actual PDF document, which you can download here. These pages and the PDF are never perfectly in sync. Both versions are made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-nonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-SA). The quoted usage examples are copyright of the cited works.
If you’re feeling impatient, the Table of Contents is at the bottom of this page.
My novel Something More Than Night (Tor Books, 2013) 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 (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. The largest and most comprehensive dictionary of English slang in existence is the extraordinary Green’s Dictionary of Slang, compiled by Jonathon Green. (Alas, I discovered this nine months after SMTN was published.) Green’s dictionary covers centuries, not merely 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.
This glossary is intended to function not only as an aid to noir readers, but also (and primarily) as an aid to noir writers. As such, it is organized into several broad categories to facilitate reverse lookups. While these categories are somewhat arbitrary, and tend to overlap a little bit, they represent a plausible high-level organization of hundreds of terms gleaned from dozens of sources without getting overly granular. This structure speaks to the general shape, style, and tropes of noir works of the era from which much of this material was gleaned.
Some terms in this glossary aren’t specifically noirish, yet have been included to exemplify more general slang of the era (which can be a useful touchstone when trying to evoke a period feel). Other terms featured here are recognizable by, or even identical to, their modern equivalents. These are included to provide reassurance that certain modern-sounding phrases would not be out of place in a period piece. Literature of the era being what it is, the intent here has been to deliberately omit racist and other offensive terms. Unfortunately, it is possible that a gross misinterpretation or misreading of a passage (see below) may have led to the inadvertent inclusion of unacceptable terminology. Such items should be identified and removed from future revisions.
The source material used to compile this glossary represents a minuscule fraction of the hard-boiled corpus published in the 1920s – early 1950s (or set during that era), with emphasis on the works of Raymond Chandler. The result is neither complete nor comprehensive.
All definitions should be considered “best guess” definitions based on contextual interpretations of the example passages. Some are undoubtedly incorrect; all are subject to correction. Also, some terms are so rare or unique that they appear in only a handful of works, or even just a single work. At that point, definitions become little more than wild guesses. Some terms are repeated: deliberately, if they overlap multiple categories, but also accidentally. Some definitions have inadvertently become decoupled from their associated usage examples as I’ve moved things around.
This living document is made freely available with no claim as to its accuracy.
The quoted usage examples are copyright of the cited works.
Table of Contents
- Drinking / Drugs / Drug Use
- Weapons & Violence
- Greetings / Goodbyes / Get Losts / Generic Addresses
- Policework / Jail / Crime
- Money / Valuables / Estimations of Value
- Body Parts / Bodies / Health
- Sex & Sexuality
- Generic Actions & Activities