OLD WORDS GET NEW MEANING IN Queer Trade Lingoes (Feb, 1933)

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Workers Coin Original Phrases as Short Cuts in Giving Orders or in Describing Features of Their Jobs

By Gaylord Johnson

An engineer is a hog-head
A new circus hand is First of May
Electric current is hot stuff
A yard switchman is a snake
A circus elephant is a bull
A fast freight train is a hot shot
A movie electrician is a gaffer
Circus monkeys are old folks
A freight yard clerk is a mud hop
A circus performer is a finker

IF YOU could listen to the jargon of two freight trainmen, you might hear this:

“You may not know it, Snake, but you’re lookin’ at a stinger that was once in line to ride the cushions. If it hadn’t been for a student tallow-pot—but I’ll tell you about it:

“I’ve got Forty-four and she’s a hot shot. Before we leave the yards, I take a run up to the calliope to match watches with the hog-head. I’m surprised to find a stude smoke-agent up in the cab taking orders from the bake-head.”

Is this all Greek to you? Then listen to this translation:

“You may not know it, yard brakeman, but you’re looking at a run brakeman who was once in line to be a passenger train conductor. If it hadn’t been for a student fireman—but I’ll tell you about it: I had number Forty-four and she was a fast freight. Before we left the yards, I went up to the engine to compare watches with the engineer. I was surprised to find a student fireman up in the cab taking orders from the regular fireman.”

An engine was obviously called the hog because of its gluttonous appetite for fuel. The engineer who runs it is therefore the hog-head. When an engine is used in the switch-yards, it is appropriately called “the goat,” because it butts cars around.

The caboose is called the “crummy” because it is occasionally infested with crums (lice). A disabled car is “a bad order.” A freight yard clerk is a “mud-hop.” When the engineer applies the air brakes he “wipes the gage” or they may say that he “cleans the clock.”

Telegraphers’ Lingo

EVEN though the telegraph operator in the railroad station is so closely associated with the railroad conductors and brakemen, he talks a distinct trade lingo of his own. Listen to him commenting to a fellow operator upon the performance of the telegraph man in the next town:

“He uses a bug, but it runs away with him. As a sender he’s a lid. He can’t read ahead and has combinations. But when he copies, no stuff is too fast for him. Last week I pasted him good, but I couldn’t put him under the table. You never hear from him after he signs up.” Translated, this queer language means: “He uses a semi-automatic key, but keeps it adjusted at a speed greater than that at which he can manipulate it properly. As a sender of messages he is poor. He fails to correct obvious typographical errors in the text before him, through lack of ability to read beyond the word he is engaged in sending. And he runs together certain characters, which makes them easily misunderstood. But when he receives messages, no speed is too fast for him. Last week I sent him something as fast as I could, but he was always able to keep up. He never interrupts for repetitions after he ac-knowledges his presence at the beginning of a message he is receiving.” Notice how many more words are needed to say in dictionary English what the operator’s story tells so concisely. Trade lingoes are short cuts and time savers.

This tendency is carried to an extreme in the occasional use of figures. Thus “30” indicates the end of a shift or of the day’s work, and has come to mean, also, death. One gets 30, or is given it. To the telegrapher “73” means “regards” or “best wishes,” and “88” conveys “love and kisses.”

The telegrapher’s typewriter is called a “mill,” and a sheet of the receiver’s copy-paper, or a number of sheets interleaved with carbon, is a “book.” An operator who pastes up the message on a blank form from strips of tape from the automatic printing receiver is called a “paper hanger.”

Abbreviations pass for some words, thus: “dux” for “duplex,” “mux” for “multiplex,” and “peter” for “repeater,” short cuts that save them time.

Ham Jargon

IF YOU aren’t one yourself, you need to be told that a “ham” is a radio amateur. Since his language is generally talked via the air in dots and dashes, he has been driven to cut everything clown to the “bones. “Old man” becomes OM; “young lady,” YL; “nothing doing,” XD; “see you later,” CUL; and “fine business,” FB. When he meets his hams face to face, they will still converse in the same code language. Thus, one “brass-pounder” might tell another: “I couldn’t get on the air last night: nursery QRM (interference). My kid had a cough that sounded like sixty cycles on the plate, and I had to go for the doc to do some trouble-shooting.”

Pieces of apparatus are called by nicknames or abbreviations, or manufacturers’ type numbers. Vacuum tube becomes “bottle”; rheostat, “rheo”; head phones, “cans”; and resistance box, “stove.” The sending set is often given a feminine name of endearment such as “Old Betsy.” It is never masculine. QRT is “shut up.” QSA is “loud,” or “loud-mouthed.” To hold two-way communication is “to work.” One amateur speaks of another’s “fist” as “in the mud,” when his sending technique is careless and sloppy.

Under the Big Top

ONE of the most colorful lingoes talked in America is spoken by the circus. If you should get a job in one, you will at once be called “First of May,” the nickname of all newcomers to the ranks.

If you are lucky enough to make friends with an old trouper, he will be glad to educate you. “Listen here, First of May!” he might say. “Let me wise you up on ‘mud opera patter!’ You was just a gillie last week. (Town person.) Now you’ve joined out with the gypsy camp. Talk like you had! Don’t go spilling gillie-talk all over the lot. Them ain’t zebras, ostriches, hippos, camels, hyenas, monkeys, and elephants. They’re convicts, big turkeys, hogs, humps, grave-diggers, old folks, and bulls. It ain’t the side-show and the menagerie tent. It’s the kid-show and the cat-house. When we make parade, the band doesn’t play cornets, clarinets, and tubas. They play frying pans, gob sticks, and bull horns. The brass and snare drums are big tub and little tub, the cymbals are pot lids, and the drumstick is the potato-masher. The band leader is the boss wind-jammer.”

As your education in circus lingo proceeded, you would learn many more new terms for familiar things. If a trouper remarked, “Flag’s up on crumb castle!” you would know that it was time to eat in the cook-house. If the circus made a long daytime rail jump, so that the cook-house couldn’t be set up, you would be handed a box-lunch called a “dukie.” Such a trip is dubbed a one or two dukie run, as the case may be.

You would soon call people who don’t buy tickets to the big show, preferring merely to enjoy the free sights on the lot, by their right name— “lot fleas.” You would call any performer a “tinker” and any bareback riding horse a “rosin-back.” A horse condemned to die for “cat food” is a “Navajo.” Show horses are “ring stock”; work-horses, “baggage stock.”

On a sweltering hot summer day you would say, “It’s a great juice day!” You would get used to “getting up in a tunnel.” (Starting work before dawn.) You would also know what the “equestrian director” (not the ringmaster) means when he says, “Give ’em Brown’s cow!” (Cut the program short.)

A Lineman Talks

IF WE seek some country roadside on a morning when a gang of telegraph linemen are arriving on the job, we shall hear an entirely different kind of lingo.

A lineman is a “hiker.” But he must begin at the bottom, start as a “grunt” or ground man. From this lowly job, he may rise and “win his spurs,” that is, become a “pole-hiker,” wearing steel climbing irons. On top of the sixty-foot “sticks,” he must then learn caution in handling the “hot stuff,” or live wires. He must also beware of “Maw Bell” (telephone) wires, for they are “grounded.” If his body gets hooked-up with them and the “hot stuff,” he will be burned or killed in mid-air. He is safe only as long as he “stays in the clear,” that is, handles only one hot wire on a pole. Here is a line gang arriving on a job. Listen to them a moment. The boss says:

“Shorty, you and Jim take that stick (climb that pole) and hang that 15 K.V.A. pot (transformer). You can have Harry and Jabs for grunts. Then you take the grunts and frame, roof, and set this other stick. (Cut the top of the pole on a bevel, make a mortise for the cross arm, and set the pole.)”

When the pole is lined up properly in the hole, the boss shouts, “Give her mud!” and the dirt is tamped in to hold the stick in place. When the rain stops their work, the men sit under a tarpaulin and “build high lines,” in other words, tell tall stories of their alleged former experiences in building lines in record time, or other unusual accomplishments with the sticks.

Oil Fields Chatter

A WORKER on an oil drilling gang, exchanging experiences over his dinner pail, would say:

“I was workin’ in a post-hole territory with a mail pouch outfit. They was a sheep-herder, a prune-picker, and a long-horn. We cuts the ditch to 2,000 when she comes in and runs barefoot, until we have to bean her. Later, when she stops flowing, we puts her on the beam, and she sands up on us.”

This is oil-field code language for the following narrative:

“I was working in shallow production oil land (with wells less than 2,500 feet deep) with a gang using a cable-drilling machine. (Called Mail Pouchers from their widespread use of this brand of tobacco.) There was a man from Wyoming, a Californian, and a Texan. We drilled the well to 2,000 feet, when it started flowing oil. It ran without any lining in

the part of the bore passing through the productive oil sands, until we had to put in a plug with a hole of smaller diameter in order to restrict the flow. Later when the well stopped flowing, we started pumping it, but it tilled up with sand.”

The lingo of the oil fields is rich in terms describing every operation and piece of apparatus used. In many cases these slang terms seem to be the only ones in existence, for they are used in the trade journals and reports of oil well operations.

The assembly of pipe connections and valves at the top of the casing of a flowing well is concisely summed up as “The Christmas Tree.” To drain off water or impurities at the bottom of an oil tank is to “bleed” it. A “fish” is anything lost in the hole which must be extracted or evaded. To “get a bone” is to encounter hard rock in drilling. To “skid the rig” is to shift the derrick for drilling a new hole when the old one cannot be continued. The “stool-pigeon” is an instrument recording the weight supported by the derrick in the hole—and hence a “detective” showing how many feet are drilled in a day.

Miners’ Terms

COAL mining would seem to be somewhat related to oil drilling, yet its assortment of trade words is entirely different. The laborers themselves are often called “muckmen” or “hunkies.” They have a hearty con-tempt for all of the other mine employees who work above ground, and express their supposed uselessness by the epithet, “Company-busters.”

The exposed or workable part of a coal vein is called “the face.” To enable the miner to get loadable coal easily, he has a machine that cuts away a layer, a few inches in height, from the bottom edge of the face. The fine chips the machine produces are called “bug dust.” After the coal is loaded into the wagons, it is drawn to the mouth of the mine along the “dilly road.” Water that has leaked into the mine collects in a pit called a “sump” before being pumped out. When a partition is built anywhere in the mine to improve the ventilation it is named a “brattish.”

Between the Acts

THE triumvirate that rules the setting of the stage is made up of three potentates, “Carps,” “Props,” and “Juice.” In other words, the stage-carpenter, the property man, and the electrician. Each of these captains has under his command a company of helpers which is known by a name as distinctive as his own. The helpers of “Carps” are called “grips,” the satellites of “Props” are named “clearers,” and the assistants of “Juice” are labelled “operators.” There is an excellent reason for keeping these terms for helpers distinct, for many of them are “floaters,” or transient workers, and the three heads of the backstage arrangements have no time to learn every new assistant’s name. “Carps” merely needs to call “Grips, strike!” to have instant attention and obedience from his entire staff. They will set to work at once dismantling the set. The “grips” will “skate” the “flats” that compose the scene across the floor to the side or back wall of the stage. A similar order from “Props” to his “clearers” will remove the furniture and bric-a-brac from the set. And meantime “Juice” and his “operators” are busy readjusting the “pockets” (floor plugs), “bunches,” and “spots” used in the act just finished.

Movie-Studio Slang

WHEN a stage play is put on the film, spoken lines and all, the back-stage lingo of “Carps,” “Props,” and “Juice” is replaced by the special dialect that has grown up around the technique of making talking pictures.

The set is called a “live stage” when it is enclosed by materials that do not absorb much sound. Where it is necessary to prevent sound being reflected or echoed, a portable wall is used, covered with sound-absorbing material. If it is not intended to be photographed, it is a “gobo.” If it is to be shown in the picture when produced, it is a “wild wall” or a “jockey wall.”

Off at one side of the set is a soundproof booth called the “aquarium” in which terminates the circuits from the microphones being used on the set. At the controls of a piece of apparatus in the “aquarium” sits the “mixer,” or “monitor man,” derisively called a “dial twister.” He blends the sound coming from the various microphones so that the recording apparatus will receive the proper intensities.

When all tests have been made in the sound-on-film reproducing system, it is reported to be “O. K. on the blops!” And after the sound-on-disc or play back system has been tested similarly, it is reported as “O. K. on the clicks!”

At last all is ready to proceed with the action of the scene being filmed. “Lock ’em up!” is the command. (Close camera booths so all noise will be kept out.)

The next orders are “Down the chute! On the line! Give ’em A. C!” (Send sound into the amplifier room and switch all recording motors into circuit. Start synchronization of camera and recording motors.)

When the scene has been shot and the “inkies” (incandescent lamps) have been turned off by the “gaffer” (head electrician) and his assistants, the day’s film is sent to the developing laboratory for “rushes,” or “dailies.” In other words the films are developed and printed overnight for trial projection next day.

When a sound film is projected at varying speeds, the interference of the sound waves in the theater auditorium may develop any one of four different defects—”wow-wows,” “flutter,” “gargle,” or “whiskers.” Also poorly-made splices in the sound-track of the finished film may cause “bloops.” And finally, when the sound-track runs through the pick-up out of line so that a little light passes through the sprocket holes, a disagreeable hum is produced. This is called “sprock.”

The trade lingo is simply a habit which is the result of humanity’s clan instinct. Every vocation-group feels the need of having its own exclusive patter. Hence it develops a language composed of English words to which it gives entirely new and unexpected meanings.

  1. fluffy says: April 17, 200711:08 am

    Most ironic title ever.

  2. Charlie says: April 17, 200711:22 am

    Very good point.

  3. Stannous says: April 17, 20077:56 pm

    When I was in college I traded some lingoes with a queer.
    (hey, don’t judge me, I was young, the summer night was warm and the moon was full…)

  4. jayessell says: April 24, 20077:33 pm


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