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

Think slang doesn't belong in the dictionary? We'd be less fun—and less informative—if we left these out.
Last Updated: 3 Jan 2024

ganef noun : thief, rascal

When Ruthie won't drop the matter, her mother explains that when she was a little girl in Frankfurt, a soldier—a ganef—came to her family's home and took what they had. "But if he didn't know what we had, he couldn't take it," she says. — Renee Ghert-Zand, The Times of Israel, 30 September 2021

Mining obscure words of yore can turn up some good insults, and ganef is one of them. 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." It may be applied to thieves of any kind.


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

Henri was a tall galoot with a hawk nose, very little chin, and a prominent Adam’s apple. — Lucy Sante, The New Yorker, 11 Nov. 2023

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…." We find that it easily evokes the type it refers to, which makes it especially pleasing.


nerts noun plural : nonsense, nuts — often used interjectionally

[The movie] "Mank" shifts between the writer's [Herman J. Mankiewicz] past and his daunting "[Citizen] Kane" assignment, which [Orson] Welles immediately orders down from 90 to 60 days for delivery. Aiding Mank is Rita (Lily Collins), his sweet-natured secretary, who aims to keep him on task and away from the bottle. Various others warn Mank against targeting wealthy and powerful media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) in his "Kane" script, including Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst's mistress, who embodies big screen glamour while also spouting Brooklyn-isms such as "aw, nerts." — Adam Graham, The Detroit News, 3 Dec. 2020

Nerts was especially 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. Don't let this stop you from assisting in its revival.

runaway bride

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

... the sun is shining, and I've got weeds that need cutting. The hummingbirds have absquatulated so winter is on the way. Have a good day and be nice to each other. — Barbara McKaskle, The Daily Star (Hammond, Louisiana), 11 Oct. 2021

Impressive in spelling and meaning, absquatulate looks like a serious word but it's not. Earliest evidence puts its genesis sometime around 1830, when it seems to have been assembled by slapping the prefix ab- (meaning "from" or "departing from") and the ending -ulate (found in speculate and modulate) onto the indisputably undignified word squat. We suggest you use it boldly.

holy joe

Holy Joe noun : parson, chaplain

I'm not a holy Joe; I'm just an old sinner like everyone else. I do believe more than ever now that there is a vast area of our own lives that we know nothing about. As I get older, I can cry at the drop of a hat because the wonderful, terrible passion of life is so short. — Anthony Hopkins, quoted in The Los Angeles Times, 9 Feb. 2020

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 more generally to any parson or chaplain. These days it's mostly used by people asserting that they lack the qualifications (and the temperament) to be considered such.


sawbones noun : physician, surgeon

Mountain biking is big here. I am sure the local sawbones makes a decent living out of resetting the collar bones that are sacrificed by lunatics who get their thrills out of flying down mountains on expensive carbon fibre. — Alex de Bruin, 2oceansvibe, 19 May 2023

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.'

We do not recommend using this term to address any surgeon with whom one may be unconscious or otherwise vulnerable.

long green

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), dough, or even scratch. Also rather unpopular are a couple slang words for money that seem more at home in the produce aisle, or a social media recipe video: 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 (Connecticut) 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.


gasser noun : something outstanding

Sai Sen is a musical talent of different stripe. ... You might remember his work on the viral gasser "Hit It for Me One Time" from 2016. Since then, he's been behind the producing board, but he's been stepping out as of late. — Chris Jordan, The Verona-Cedar Grove Times (Verona, New Jersey), 19 Jan. 2023

Before something that was a source of pleasure, or a delight, could be called a gas, the word gasser was referring to impressive things. 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.

dog in pool with lots of balls

beaucoup adjective : great in quantity or amount : many, much

Hopeful undergrads vying for entry into the sorority of their dreams often shell out beaucoup bucks to present themselves as “perfect” during the recruitment process ... — Georgia Worrell, The New York Post, 3 June 2023

Beaucoup rhymes with the part of doku part of sudoku, but it's not about puzzles, and it comes from French rather than Japanese. In French, beaucoup is an adverb meaning "a lot" or "much"; English speakers may be familiar with it in the phrase "merci beaucoup," which translates as "thanks a lot." But beaucoup in English doesn't do quite the same thing; instead of being an adverb of degree, it's a slangy adjective meaning "many" or "much," as in "beaucoup slang words."

Current evidence dates this English degradation of a perfectly simple and useful French word to the mid-19th century.

ostentatious mansion

oofy adjective : rich, wealthy

From 1921 to 1932, she secluded herself in what was then the sleepy hamlet of Water Mill on the South Fork of Long Island. Now a resort haven replete with pristine beaches and stupendous mansions drawing oofy vacationers ..., the focal point of Water Mill during Pelton's time there was a watermill and a windmill. — Natasha Gural, Forbes, 19 Apr. 2020

Oofy isn't a word to flatter the financially flush among us, which is part of its charm. It's a product of the late 19th century, having come quick on the heels of its predecessor, ooftish or oof for short; that word means "money," and comes from the Yiddish phrase uf tish, "on (the) table."