Fast Talk: The Slang of Pulp

Article by Nick Swain

Illustration by John Waltrip


Trouble.  From Carrol John Daly to Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich to Raoul Whitfield, or Erle Stanley Gardner and Frederick Nebel; all men who left indelible impressions in the world of Pulp – hell, Daly is widely respected and regarded among readers as having created the Hard-Boiled genre, with crime fiction going as far back as 1922 – all men who wrote about people in trouble.  Since classic Pulps like Black Mask, writers have kept readers hooked with page after page of morally questionable protagonists dancing down the blurry-lines of right and wrong, gambling with life itself as they tangle with seemingly unstoppable trigger-happy villains and deadly dames that would just as soon kill you as kiss you.   Woolrich, Daly, Fisher, Whitfield, and even more household names like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain — all of them, masters of hard-boiled and nefarious tales; all of them, authors of characters that have at least one thing in common: From the world-weary crooked cop to the beautiful, scheming doll with high-priced aspirations, the decent pug backed into a corner, or the miscellaneous ensemble of crooks composed of cowardly weasels and callous psychopaths, every one of them is in trouble.  In a jam.  A fix.  Whether it was that way from the start and the innocent have been pulled into a web of murder, or they brought it on themselves through selfish action, their troubles are what drive the story.

But what gives those characters and their troubles that potency is the unique and stylish narration of their shady odyssey.  Pulp fiction has always had its’ own bold approach to the underworld; where criminality and gangsterism thrive, and bullets and lives are equally expendable; where every glamorous girl who winks at you from the bar is plotting something treacherous, and where every perfect heist ends in perfect disaster; where if you can’t keep up with the lingo, you’re liable to be made or mistaken.  Either could mean a knock-off, see?

I’ll let you in on the basic scheme of things, first.  Then we can talk turkey.



The Police —- Badges; The Blue Boys; The Boys; The Bulls; Coppers; The Dog Catchers; Flatfoots; The Goon Squad; The Hacks; The Happy Boys; The Heat; Operatives (or Op); The Riot Squad; The Screws; The Spooks.


Private Investigator —-Dick; Gumshoe; Peeper; P.I.; Private Cop; Private Dick; Sleuth.


Man —- Bird; Buster (also an insult); Chum (insult); Chump (insult); Egghead (insult); Fella; Gink; Goon (a thug); Goose; Mug (can be an insult); Tomcat (woman chaser); Wolf (woman chaser).


Woman —- Broad; Dame; Cannery; Doll; Kitten; Jane; Moll; Skirt; Sister; Tomato; (attractive woman); Tommy; Tramp (insult); Twist; Sometimes identified by Hair Color (Ex: Red, Blondie).


Gun —- Bean-Shooter; Burner; Cannon; Gat; Heater; Piece; Pop-Gun; Tone; Typewriter (Machine Gun – often with the name of city heading – Ex: Chicago Typewriter); Rod; Steel.


Car —- Bucket; Bus (big car); Clunker; Heap; Jalopy; Ride; Rust-Bucket; Wagon; Wheels.


Knife —- Dagger (applies to any blade); Pigstick (switchblade); Poker; Shank (a crudely handmade weapon, often manufactured inside prisons and jails); Shiv; Steel (yes, again).


Robbery —- Caper; Clean-out; Glom; Heist; Hold-up; Job; Knock-over; Push-in; Score; Stick-up.


Murder —- Bump-off; Clip; Croak; Drill (to shoot); Hit; Ice; Knock-off; Let Them Have It; Plug (to shoot); Poke (to stab); Rub-out; Whack.


An Arrest —- A beef; Grabbed; Nailed; A pinch; A rap; Snatched.


Prison —- The Big House; The Box (solitary); The Can; The Clink; The Hole (solitary); The Pen; The Inside; The Ironworks; The Joint; The Jug; Name of Actual Penitentiary Often Used (Ex: Quintin, Folsom, Leavenworth); The Tombs; Stir; The Walls.


Serving Time in Prison —- A bid; a dime (ten years), a nickel (five years), etc.; Under Glass; A stint; A stretch.


Stupid Person —- Bright Boy; Cluck; Crumb; Dope; Dumbbell; Heel; Lug; Louse; Noodlehead; Palooka; Tinhorn.


To Inform —- Dime-Out; Finking; Flapping; Peaching; Ratting; Rolling over; Singing; Squealing; Talking; Turning.


Crazy —- Blow a Fuse; Bugging; Crazy as a bug; Daffy; Flip Your Lid; Going schizo’; Goofy; Nuts; Nutty; Off the Rails; Off Your Top; Whacko.


Money —- Berries; Cabbage; Cheddar; Dough; Gravy; Greenback; Hay; Lettuce; Jack; Loot; Scratch; Spinach; Sugar; The Take.


A Drunk —- Bottle-Sucker; Booze-Hound; Lush; Rum-Dum; Rum-head.


To Be Drunk —- Flying; High; Lit; Stinko; Sauced; Tight.

— ♦♦♦ —


Gettin’ cozy?  Good.  There’s plenty more dope on the patter of Pulp where that came from.  But first, it’s worth mentioning that, just as in the dimly-lit street corners and seedy alleys of the Pulps, the rules of slang are not always clear – if not nonexistent.  What I mean is, many terms – such as Steel, Knock-off, and Whack – can have many different meanings, and may be applicable to a wide range of illicit situations and conversations.  Words such as Dope (along with its obvious use for drugs) can be a reference to both important information or a stupid individual.  Clip can apply to both murder and wounding.  Tap can mean to borrow or steal.  It’s all in the context.

And since these rules are so flexible, and because many terms often culturally derived, screw-ups are practically inevitable.  But with these screw-ups comes the opportunity to create.  For example, in my own case of negligence, I, like so many other Pulp and Noir fiends, made the common mistake of believing the bestowed title of the young henchmen – better known as the “Gunsel” – in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, was just another term for gun-hand or cheap-gun, which if what I’ve read on the subject is true, is precisely what Hammett knew the editor would think.

The misunderstanding went further.

Continuing on the premise of this mistake, and being an avid watcher of classic Film Noir – and embarrassingly enough, having forgotten the spelling and pronunciation of the term, long after reading the book – truly believed that in the 1941 film adaptation, Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade was saying of Elisha Cook Jr.’s character, “Keep that cheap gunzo away from me!  I’ll kill him!”

I went so far as to use the term myself in at least one of the stories I’d been writing at the time; why the hell not?  After all, who doesn’t want to be a great writer like Hammett?  It was only after watching a clip from Eddie “The Czar of Noir” Muller that I finally realized what I had done.  Gunsel, though widely accepted to mean cheap-gun or gunman, is in reality, a literal Yiddish translation for “Punk Homosexual” or, if you will, “The Jailhouse Bitch”, which has got to be about the worst thing you can say to someone in a room full of tough guys.  The thought of those writers ducking the heavy-hand of Golden-Age censorship and sneaking in vulgarities, had me cracking up in hindsight.  Only after that did I remember all the times I’d referred to an armed-hoodlum as a “Gunzo”.  Except when I went to edit, I found that I still enjoyed the term.  It seemed to fit what I was talking about.  It sounded cool and threatening enough.  So what if I’d inadvertently made it up while trying to make my own fictitious character come off as tough and believable as possible?  When I was writing it, I meant gunman – and it read like I meant gunman.  So, there was Gunzo.  Slang can be so simple in the midst of all that complication.  The language is that chaotic, that adaptable.

Now that you know anything goes, here’s a basic run-of-the-mill guide to some more off the top slang.  I promise, if you open any Big Book of Pulp or collection of Noir, you’ll run into more than a few of these.


— ♦♦♦ —


Above My Pay Grade —- Lacking in knowledge; without information.


All Wet —- A fallacious idea or individual.


Blow (or Beat-It or Scram) —- To leave or be told to leave.


Box-Man —- A safecracker.


Bracelets — Handcuffs or restraints.


A Breeze (or Cinch) —- Something simple or easily achieved.


Brush-off (or Runaround) —- Awkward or subtle evasion or implication.


Bum-Rap —- A false arrest or accusation.


Bum-Rush —- A group attack or charge.


Button Man —- A Professional Killer.


Clam-Up —- Refuse to Talk.


Clean Break —- Successful escape.


Clip Joint —- A high-priced nightclub or bar.


Chisel —- To swindle or cheat someone.


C-Note — A one-hundred-dollar bill.


Dapper (or Decked-Out or Swanky) —- Handsomely dressed, often demonstrating wealth.


Dead-Hoofer —- A poor dancer or slow individual.


Dish —- Good looking; attractive.


Dive (or Dump) —- Cheap, rundown establishment.


Doll Dizzy —- To be girl crazy; infatuated.


In Dutch —- To be in trouble.


Dry-Gulch —- To attack suddenly; sucker-punch.


Fall Guy (or Patsy) —- The scapegoat or victim of a frame.


Fin —- Five-dollar bill.


A Flop —- No good; failure.


Flophouse —- Typically a cheap or transient hotel.


Fuddy Duddy —- Someone old-fashioned and fussy.


Gams —- A woman’s legs.


A Gas —- A good time; to have a party.


G-Man —- F.B.I agent.


Go Belly Up —- To fail or give in.


Gorilla (also a Bruno) —- Common term for bodyguard, but can apply to any large man.


Grifter —- A con man.


Grill —- To interrogate.


Hard-Boiled —- To be tough.


Hash House —- A cheap restaurant or diner.


Head Doctor —- A psychiatrist.


Hock Shop —- Pawnshop.


Hooch —- Liquor.


Hot —- Stolen or wanted by the law.


House Dick —- Hotel detective.


Heist ‘Em —- Raise hands.


Ice —- Diamonds.


Joint —- Any home or establishment; prison.


Khaki Whacky —- To be boy crazy; infatuated.


Kick/Kick-Back —- To complain, lash out against.


Kick-Off —- To Die.


Kisser (or Trap) —- Mouth.


Large —- Thousands of dollars (Ex: thirty large would be $30,000).


Lead Poisoning —- To be shot to death.


A Line —- An exaggeration or lie.


Lousy With —- Overrun with or full of.


Mark —- A sucker; someone to be taken advantage of.


Mitts —- Hands.


Nothing Doing —- Without prospect of success or agreement.


On the Lam (or Take It on the Heel) —- Fleeing; to go into hiding.


On the Level (or Square) —- Reliable; able to be trusted.


Pair of C’s —- Two Hundred-dollar bills.


Paw —- To touch.


Peanuts — Negligible or minor.


Pill (or Slug) —- A bullet.


Pipes —- The throat.


A Pistol —- A cocky or overly confident individual.


Pug —- A boxer or a thug.


Pull —- To have influence.


Pumper —- The Heart.


Pushover —- A weak person.


Puss (also Mug) —- The Face.


Put the Screws On —- To question roughly or to harass and assault.


Rags —- Clothes.


Rattler —- A Train.


Razz —- To tease or antagonize.


Rib Up —- To become excited and prepared; to arrange something.


Rube —- An easy target.


Scoop —- Important, often inside information


Scratcher —- A forger.


Shylock —- A Loanshark.


Shyster —- A Lawyer.


Skag —- Heroin; an unattractive woman.


Snort —- An alcoholic drink.


Soup —- Bullets, or nitroglycerin (often used on “Box Jobs”).


Stacked —- A well-endowed female physique.


Stool-Pigeon/Stoolie —- An informer.


Swag —- Stolen merchandise.


Take A Powder —- To leave or flee.


The Horn —- The telephone.


Throw Lead —- Shoot bullets.


Thumb Your Nose —- To look down on someone; hold contempt for.


T-Man —- Treasury agent.


Well-Heeled —- To be wealthy.


What’s Doing? —- A greeting or way of asking what’s going on.


Wim-Whams (or Heebie Jeebies or Shakes) —- To be afraid or extremely nervous.


Wrack Your Brain —- Examine the facts

 — ♦♦♦ —


With that list, you can talk like the toughest one in the Gin Mill, or you can be well on your way to writing for the Pulps.  If the latter is the case, the best advice I’d be qualified to give would be to be cocky about it.  Write like you’re there.  Write like you’re just another lost soul stuck in a tight room where someone’s hit the alarm and any second lead could start flying.  Write like that beautiful, classy woman at the bar is winking at you, and that you don’t care what sinister agenda is lurking behind those glinting blues.  Write like the typewriter (or whatever you use) is a weapon.  An automatic weapon.

Each word should be chosen carefully with a resounding purpose, scraping for its’ own existence.  In dialogue, the tough-talk can become all the more enthralling when the guy and gal start shooting slick names back and forth; the brute sent by the loan shark or that hoodlum from the slums can become convincingly tough and dumb when you leave a couple – or add a couple –  letters out of a word (Ex: Ya – as in you, ‘Till – as in until, Smokin’ – as in smoking) or make other deliberate grammatical errors (Ex: We was wonderin’– or – I ain’t sayin’ nothin’).

And keep in mind that if you enjoy movies, that Film Noir and Pulp fiction go hand in hand.  So flip over to TCM or pull up a story on Crimson Streets and go crazy; they both deliver the goods on Sunday mornings.

‘Till next time, keep your head down and your nose clean.  Remember the streets of Pulp are full of danger, and that if you can’t convince the right people… Well, concrete shoes fit everyone.

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

"Aerial Show Down" Copyright (c) 2018 by Bradley K. McDevitt. Used under license.Aerial Show Down.  By Bruce Harris, Art by Bradley K. McDevitt

The Miller’s Field crowd swelled all morning. Everyone turned out for one reason, to see the final aerial performance of the BBB – Burgundy Bird Brigade.  It would be a show that no one would ever forget.

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