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Words at Play

'Ganef', 'Galoot', and 7 More Historical Slang Terms We Love

Think slang doesn't belong in the dictionary? Think again

ganef noun : thief, rascal

"Seniors, particularly women, are the largest and most frequent target of financial scamsters, and this ganef takes the cupcake." — Malcolm Barko, Creators Syndicate, 5 Nov. 2013

Some obscure slang words are good for insults, and ganef is one. Ganef—also styled as gonif and goniff—has been in use in English since the late 1830s. It's a Yiddish borrowing, and originally comes from the Hebrew word gannābh, meaning "thief."

galoot noun : a man or boy; especially : one who is foolish or awkward

"He was loud and funny and kind of a big loping galoot …." — David Wiegand, The San Francisco Chronicle, 22 Mar. 2016

Evidence of galoot dates to the second decade of the 19th century, but little is known about whence it sprang. Mark Twain didn't mind its obscure origin, and used the word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): "Next you'd see a raft sliding by, away off yonder, and maybe a galoot on it chopping, because they're most always doing it on a raft…."

nerts noun plural : nonsense, nuts — often used interjectionally

"What could be more fun than mocking yesterday's euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken's 'American Language' and you find our American forebears exclaiming 'nerts!' (to avoid the naughty 'nuts!')…." — Jan Freeman, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 20 Feb. 2011

Nerts may have been useful in the late 1920s when you presumably couldn't say "Nuts!" without shocking and offending, but now the latter sounds quaint and the former positively obsolete. It may be due for a revival.

absquatulate transitive verb 1 : to leave a place suddenly and secretly : decamp 2 : to go away and take something that does not belong to you : abscond

"Micro lofts could be rehabbed into the Industrial Trust Building (if Bank of America absquatulates)…." — David Brussat, The Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, 26 Jan. 2012

Among the most obscure of the obscure slang words, absquatulate looks like a serious word but it's not. Earliest evidence puts its birth sometime around 1830, when it seems to have been concocted from the prefix ab-, meaning "from" or "departing from," the verb squat, and -ulate, as in speculate. The word is too rare for the dictionary at merriam-webster.com, but it appears in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

Holy Joe noun : parson, chaplain

"On a cold February day in 2012, I was walking across a windswept parking lot in Franklin, Ohio, when the phone rang. It was another treasure for this old, retired Holy Joe. A small church in Nelson County called me to come be their pastor, minister, preacher and friend." — Mike Bradford, The Kentucky Standard (Bardstown, Kentucky), 10 Apr. 2014

Holy Joe was originally a term used by 19th century sailors to refer to those who ventured to the seas to minister to the saltier souls in need of salvation. It also referred to prison chaplains before expanding to refer to more generally to any parson or chaplain.

sawbones noun : physician, surgeon

"He was not without his supporters, who saw Dr. Nichopoulos as a caring silver-haired sawbones trying to help a struggling Elvis monitor and ameliorate his drug use." — Bob Mehr, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee), 26 Feb. 2016

The rather gruesome term sawbones may be the product of the imagination of Charles Dickens. The earliest known example of it is from his Pickwick Papers (1837):

'What's a sawbones?' inquired Mr. Pickwick, not quite certain whether it was a live animal, or something to eat. 'What! Don't you know what a sawbones is, sir?' inquired Mr. Weller. 'I thought everybody know'd as a sawbones was a surgeon.'

long green noun : money

"'Sure,' said the Bowery boy doggedly, securely mounted now on his favorite hobby horse. 'I knows, and youse knows, Mr. Chames. Gee, I wish I'd bin a cop. But I wasn't tall enough. Dey's de fellers wit' de long green in der banks.'" — P.G. Wodehouse, "The Gem Collector," Ainslee's Magazine, December 1909

Long green has been around since the late 1880s, but it isn't as popular as some more recent slang terms for money, like moola (or moolah) or even scratch. Also rather unpopular are a couple slang words for money that seem more at home in the produce aisle: kale and cabbage.

roscoe noun : handgun

"The small number of burglars or robbers who might research gun permit files would avoid the chance of being greeted by a frightened homeowner packing a roscoe." — editorial, The Hartford Courant, 8 Sept. 2010

If the roscoe that refers to a handgun owes its existence to a particular Roscoe, that person is not known to history. What we do know is that the use of roscoe to refer to a handgun dates to the early 20th century—and is playable in Scrabble.

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gasser noun : something outstanding

"… Sophia Loren actually reported to friends that Sinatra was 'a regular gasser' and she 'dug him.'" — Jeff Simon, The Buffalo (New York) News, 13 Dec. 2015

Before something that was a source of pleasure, or a delight, could be called a gas, the word gasser made its way onto the scene. The "something outstanding" use of gasser dates—in print, anyway—to Cab Calloway's 1944 Hepster's Dictionary. Almost a century before that tome, gasser had developed a different slang use—"a talkative or bragging person"—which is also obscure but still in use.

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