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I'm looking for slang words that would have been in use around 1910 in New York. Anyone know of an online resource that might work?

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Dec 24 '17 at 20:46

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

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    Hi! Because of the structure of StackExchange as a A&A site, recommendation questions don’t end up fitting well. However, this particular site on StackExchange (English Language and Usage) has made the decision that we can ask and collect questions about English resources on its “Meta” site, [Meta], so we can move this question there for you. Personally I use UrbanDictionary for contemporary street slang, but you have to carefully evaluate each entry because a lot of them are one-offs; better to cross check for uses in the wild e.g. on Twitter. Wiktionary is also useful. – Dan Bron Dec 24 '17 at 15:52
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    Outside contemporary street slang, I tend to look for specific and credible glossaries compiled by people who seem versed in whatever population I’m studying. For your case, there are a number of slang dictionaries compiled in the 20s and 30s and they should have collected 1910s NYC usage. – Dan Bron Dec 24 '17 at 15:53
  • @DanBron This sort of question is not really on-topic at our Meta either, because we here at E.L.U. lack the power to decide our meta website's scope, and this question it has nothing to do with the way the website is run, or the software that powers it. This question category, which is usually called a resource request, would be on-topic at the Language Learning S.E. though, but Stack Exchange doesn't allow cross-posting, so I'd recommend that Susanne Dunlap should just delete this question and ask there instead. – Tonepoet Dec 24 '17 at 16:21
  • Possible duplicate of What are your favorite English language tools? – Lawrence Dec 24 '17 at 17:48
  • I'd head to the Library of Congress. – Lambie Dec 24 '17 at 18:24
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    @Tonepoet No, that is wrong. There is a good culture here of making requests for resources on met.ELU – Mitch Dec 24 '17 at 22:56
  • Susanne, look at good reference works on English in the section on dictionaries search that page (alt- or ctrl-f) for 'slang'. – Mitch Dec 24 '17 at 23:00
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    @Mitch You are right that our community has a habit of doing it, but I don't believe I'm wrong about this. My claim has basis in other facts, which aside from what I demonstrate here, also has basis in a similar attempt by S.E. communities to shield otherwise off-topic questions using the community wiki feature which ended poorly for everybody. I'd even go so far as to claim it's a bad habit, but comments here aren't really the place to discuss the merits of policy. – Tonepoet Dec 25 '17 at 2:37
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    Possible duplicate of What good reference works on English are available? – Lawrence Dec 26 '17 at 14:14
  • Can you change your title to something explicit, like Online dictionary of slangs in use around 1910 in New York? – Cœur Jan 2 '18 at 5:28
  • Hello and welcome to ELU! I have updated the title of your question to make it more specific, as its original title immediately made me think Urban Dictionary, which clearly would be very unlikely to be useful for 1910s New York slang. – Dog Lover Jan 5 '18 at 7:58
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Green's Dictionary of Slang is a highly regarded and well-curated dictionary that I would feel safe calling "the best online slang dictionary" in a holistic sense. The website is easy to use, and with a paid subscription you can access its massive collection of citations, now available for free without a subscription.

Even with GDoS, the granularity is not to the level of "New York." You could search for words or senses formed in the U.S. between 1910 and 1919, and optionally specify cultural context in searching, but if you really want to find slang unique to New York in 1910, you might consider seeking out texts that were published around that point in spacetime, or sociological works specific to that culture.

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I suspect your best bet will be to find a print slang dictionary contemporary to your desired time period. Fortunately, many of these will be out of copyright and therefore available online. Google Books is a great way to find these (under "Tools" you can limit your date range to something that seems sensible), and you could also look in Project Gutenberg or Hathi Trust's Digital Library.

One example is the 1896 A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies' Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology (link is to Vol. II). It's a little earlier than 1910, but some of the phrases labelled "American" would probably still have been in use fifteen years later. Entries are labelled with region, including some that are specific to New York and others that are more generally "American". A sample entry:

Swartwout (American), a verb of local (New York) origin or usage, signifying "to abscond," "to vamoose," "to skip." A Mr. Swartwout once decamped from that city, carrying with him a large amount of public money—hence its origin.

This dictionary and a few others very tantalizingly cite a New York Slang Dictionary, published by R.K. Fox, which I believe is Alfred Trumble's A Slang dictionary of New York, London and Paris : a collection of strange figures of speech, expressive terms and odd phrases used in the leading cities of the world, their origin, meaning and application / collected and arranged by a well-known detective ; containing portraits of celebrated criminals, with sketches of their lives. (1880; access via Hathi Trust.) The entries aren't labelled with origin, as Trumble's thesis is that "thieve's patter" is exactly the same all over the world(!), but he appears to have done most of his actual collecting in New York City so it may be useful to you.

  • 1006a, can you add these to english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2573/… – Mitch Dec 28 '17 at 18:59
  • Sure, next time I'm back on a desktop (it's winter break here, and my computer is very overbooked). Do you mean Google, Project Gutenberg, and Hathi Trust, or just the specific dictionaries? If the former, was there a specific category that makes sense to you? It doesn't look like there's currently a category for text repositories. – 1006a Dec 29 '17 at 5:07
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    The Barrère & Leland (1897) dictionary cited above already appears in the list that Mitch notes in a comment above. I've added the Fox (1880) entry that you mention, however. Thanks! – Sven Yargs Dec 29 '17 at 8:20
  • Thanks, @SvenYargs! – 1006a Dec 29 '17 at 23:13
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If you're just looking for a manageable collection of slang words and phrases that were probably in use around 1910 in New York City, you could do worse than the glossary of terms in Life in Sing Sing by "Number 1500," published in 1904. Since Sing Sing prison is located just 30 miles north of the city, its slang undoubtedly is and was strongly influenced by city slang.

Number 1500 very conveniently sets aside 15 pages near the end of the book (pages 246–260) for a "dictionary of thieves' and convicts' slang." I can't vouch for the contemporaneity of all of the entries (compilers of slang dictionaries in centuries past had an unfortunate and unscholarly tendency to simply reissue older slang compilations under their own names or to fill out their own efforts with cribbed entries of dubious currency from earlier dictionaries), but many of the ones in Number 1500's glossary seem to be on point and reasonably up-to-date.

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