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Keep Your Tail Over the Dashboard

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This week, McGimpers, geetus, and other underworld lingo from the 1930s. Crime novelist James Ellroy stops by to talk slang terms and reveals his own favorite. Also, is the expression “Hear, hear!” or “Here, here!”? Is it bran-new or brand-new? The spooky, creepy story behind the flat hat called a tam. And what does it mean to keep your tail over the dashboard? This episode first aired November 21, 2009.

Crime Lingo from the 1930s

 Grant talks about the lingo of criminals from 1930s. Here are more examples from police reporter Ben Kendall’s 1931 Los Angeles Times article, “Underworld ‘Lingo’ Brought Up-to-Date”:

Apple-knocker: A yokel; a blunderer. “That big apple-knocker slipped on the top step with a five gallon can of alky.”

Creeper (creep joint): A bawdy house. “Them McGimpers around those creepers will take you every time.”

Goldfish: Third degree; a police beating. “They took him up and showed him the goldfish, but he never squawked.”

Gow: To catch; to jail. “Be careful when you drive because they gow you in this town if you have booze on your breath.” (Grant’s note: probably a shortened form of hoosegow.)

Meat-wagon: Ambulance. “If any of those mugs get tough in my join they’ll take a trip in the meat wagon.”

Wing-ding: A fit; berserk. “The sailor pulled a wing ding after the first drink and they called the meat-wagon.”


 Ask a Roman! A theater student from Texas is having an argument with a friend about the word vomitorium. He says that in ancient Rome, a vomitorium was a room where revelers went to purge after overindulging at the banquet table. True?

Etymology of Bisque

 How did the term bisque come to mean “an unglazed piece of ceramic work”? Does it have anything to do with the kind of bisque that might be served in a ceramic bowl?

Tam Hat

 Martha tells the story of the creepy, spooky, surreal, and downright weird Robert Burns poem behind the name for that flat hat called a tam. Read it in translation here.

“Three and a Match” Quiz

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski puzzle this week is called “Three and a Match.” The challenge is to figure out three words from a common category—say, nationalities—that go with each of the three clues he mentions. If, for example, three clues are “coat,” “court,” and “ear,” then answers are “pea,” “squash,” and “cauliflower,” and the category is “vegetables.” Now try this one: “muffin,” “cheese,” “fries.”

Bran New vs. Brand New

 In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow gets what he calls a bran-new brain. A caller wonders: Is the correct term bran-new or brand-new?

Origin of Plane Cockpit

 A former naval flight officer wonders how the term cockpit ever came to mean the part of the aircraft where pilots sit.

Here, Here vs. Hear, Hear

 You’re at a wedding and all the guests raise their glasses in unison and say “Here, here!” Or is it “Hear, hear”?


 Grant answers a caller’s question about the origin of griage, a word used increasingly in clinics where flu shots are dispensed.

Slang Quiz with James Ellroy

 Crime novelist James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia and most recently, Blood’s a Rover, tries his hand at a slang quiz. He reveals his favorite slang term, then tries to guess the meaning of the slang words buzzer, sheetwriter, and geetus, and the phrase “working the paper.”


 An Indianapolis woman vaguely remembers that there was a term for the Mohawk Indians who worked on the high beams and girders of some of this country’s most famous construction projects. The word she wants: skywalkers. High Steel is the documentary Grant mentions about these construction workers, this is the Lost and Found Sound piece, and this is the New Yorker article by Joseph Mitchell, collected into the book Up in the Old Hotel.

Tail Over the Dashboard

 What does it mean to have your tail over the dashboard?

Spanish and Arabic Article Roots

 A caller wonders if the Spanish and Arabic articles el and al spring from the same linguistic root.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

Photo by Robyn Jay. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

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