Chicago lingo of the late 1800s

While researching Alchemy of Bones, I kept a list of interesting words and turns of phrase that appeared in Chicago newspaper stories from the late 1800s. Some of these come from quotations of speech. Others are terms used by the newspaper writers themselves. In some cases, I have had to make an educated guess about the definition, judging the meaning by looking at context. This is not a comprehensive glossary of the slang used in Chicago at the end of the 19th century; it represents only a small sample of the city's colorful language during that era. Many of these phrases were also used outside the Chicago area. I encourage others to contact me with comments or suggestions for other terms to include here. — Robert Loerzel.

bell — to catch (a criminal). Scotland Yard detective agency was only able to "bell" him by personal description." (Chicago Inter Ocean, May 19, 1897.)

big bug — an important person. (Chicago Journal, December 17, 1897.)

the big head — delusions of grandeur. His nephew testified that he had acquired the big head, ordering dry goods jewelry in great abundance, with no cash to pay; he also imagined he has valuable and paying property. (Chicago Inter Ocean, November 7, 1897.)

blackleg — corrupt or criminal. Every gambler, every thief, every blackleg attorney, every corrupt politician in the city of Chicago. (Chicago Tribune, February 14, 1898.)

boodling — bribery or corruption. He had once been indicted on a charge of "boodling." (Chicago Record, October 20, 1897.)

bosh — nonsense. Attorney Phalen characterized as bosh the report that the defense would try to have the jury view the dissolution of a human body in the sausage vat. "It would be illegal and illogical," he said. (Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1897.)

boss about that — to be the person in charge of a particular thing. "She was running her household. She was entirely boss about that, and I was running the business". (Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1898.)

buncombe — nonsense or something said for mere show.  "That's all buncombe." (Chicago Inter Ocean, December 30, 1897.)

by-play — a diversion or distraction designed to annoy someone. "a bit of by-play got up to make Luetgert wild." (Chicago Daily News, September 9, 1897.)

carryall — a light vehicle drawn by one horse. The jury reached the grounds in a big carryall. (Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1897.)

chalktalker — a newspaper sketch artist. The cast of Luetgert's face on Sept. 15, when the Times-Herald chalktalker took a whack at it, is the nearest to an expression of peace that the pig grinder has yet assumed. (Chicago Inter Ocean, September 20, 1897.)

clew — clue. Capt. Schuettler received the clew by telephone. (Chicago Tribune, May 13, 1897.)

cut and dried out of whole cloth — made up out of whole cloth. "I thought this was all cut and dried out of whole cloth." (Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1899.)

cuts no figure — doesn’t matter; is of no importance. The expert testimony on bones, human or otherwise, cut no figure in their discussions. (Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1897.)

do up — to do a number on. "It doesn’t take long to do up a man here." (Chicago Inter Ocean, October 24, 1897.)

dowd — a dowdy woman. In general they are either dowds or slatterns. (Chicago Evening Journal, September 11, 1897.)

drayman — a wagon driver. The corpses were loaded into a wagon in charge of John Ludes, the drayman. (Chicago Journal, December 17, 1897.)

dust, to want — to seek money or a remedy, as in a lawsuit. Davey Wants Dust. The Visiting Britisher Sues The Inter Ocean. (Chicago Inter Ocean headline, February 3, 1893.)

first water — of the first order. "He is a crank of the first water…" (Chicago Journal, Feb. 2, 1898.)

fly cops — Phrase used by a Kenosha police officer to describe Chicago police. (Chicago Evening Journal, Sept. 23, 1897.)

footpad — A robber who would quietly sneak up on his victim. (Chicago Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1898.)

forenoon — morning. A woman answering the published description of Mrs. Luetgert called at his place on Tuesday forenoon and got a glass of beer. (Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1897.)

give me a fair show for my white alley — Give me a fair chance to speak or state my case. (Chicago Inter Ocean, January 27, 1898.)

grewsome — gruesome. Still laughing, he continued to inspect the grewsome things. (Chicago Journal, September 9, 1897.)

gripsack — a carrying bag or small piece of luggage. A few minutes later he made his exit, gripsack in hand. (Chicago Inter Ocean, February 4, 1893.)

halt — crippled. Beginning at the early morning hours and continuing throughout the entire day the Palmer house corridors were crowded with the lame and halt. (Chicago Journal, December 2, 1897.)

in no wise — in no way. He had a slight touch of stage fright, but this detracted in no wise from the impression his words made. (Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1898.)

job — to "do a job" on someone; to "get" someone. "They were trying to job him." he maintained his innocence and insisted the witnesses were trying to job him. (Chicago Inter Ocean, December 6, 1897.)

job-lot assortment — an odd assortment. A job-lot assortment of newspaper pictures. (Chicago Inter Ocean, September 20, 1897.)

lave — to wash. He bobbed up and down to lave his face. (Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1897.)

leave off — to lift up. "Leave the paper off." (Chicago Inter Ocean, December 30, 1897.)

nit — An expression meaning, "No!" "Me holler? Nit!" he responded. (Chicago Daily News, November 29, 1897.)

old sport — A loose woman. "Didn't you say ... that the woman you saw ... looked like an old sport?" (Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1897.)

on the hoof — on the fly. He told me I could ... pick out interesting cases 'on the hoof.' (Chicago Times-Herald, January 9, 1898.)

paid her court — An expression used to describe a male suitor visiting a woman at her home. Her father says that a young man paid her court for a year. (Chicago Inter Ocean, October 24, 1897.)

pass the lie — to come to blows. In a tilt between Mr. Harmon and Mr. McEwen the two attorneys came near passing the lie. (Chicago Inter Ocean, December 30, 1897.)

phiz — face. According to these pictures he has made a complete change in phiz every day since the trial began. (Chicago Inter Ocean, September 20, 1897.)

"pipe" stories — fantastic stories. "Why if I had time to follow all the 'pipe' stories that are sent in to me, I wouldn't have enough officers in the city of Chicago." (Chicago Inter Ocean, May 21, 1897.)

plug tobacco — chewing tobacco. He laid down in the barn had a large chew of plug tobacco in his mouth. (Chicago Tribune, September 13, 1879.)

recollect — remember, recall. "I don't recollect the other words he said." (Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1897.)

a report went abroad — a rumor went around. A report went aboard during the day that Attorney Vincent had already made a move to bring about the decapitation of Inspector Schaack. (Chicago Tribune, October 24, 1897.)

right along — all along, the entire time. "I gave her money right along whenever she asked for it." (Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1898.)

roorback  — a trick or ruse. What may be termed a "roorback" was sprung in the Luetgert trial yesterday by the defense. Three of the jurors' family physicians were put on the stand as bone experts... (Chicago Inter Ocean, January 20, 1898.) This term originally meant "a false or slanderous story devised for political effect" and was named after the supposed author of a selections from a nonexistent book, Roorback's Tour through the Western and Southern States in 1836, which included false accusations against presidential candidate James K. Polk.

rush the can — A description of what criminals did when they were lying low in Chicago during the winter. They settles down in their accustomed haunts, "rush the can" and follow their vocation of robbery only when something particularly "easy" turns up or when bad whisky has got the better of their judgment. (Chicago Daily News, November 13, 1897.)

sandbag — To rob by sneaking up behind a person and knocking the person unconscious with a sandbag. Sandbagging is a lost art. It has been succeeded by the hold-up. For years it flourished... it was supplanted by the modern methods followed night after night in Chicago streets... The sandbag, the catlike tread of the thug, the sudden, swift descent from behind upon the unsuspecting victim, the blow which felled but did not kill, all these are gone. (Chicago Chronicle, January 2, 1898.)

seven miles behind the moon  — to be crazy, to be "out there." (Chicago Chronicle, January 25, 1898.)

show — a chance or a moment. "Give me a show to change my clothes." (Chicago Journal, January 24, 1898.)

sketchist — a newspaper sketch artist. (Chicago Inter Ocean, September 20, 1897.)

snicker to snort — An expression of scoffing, as in "I should snicker to snort." (Chicago Daily News, January 26, 1898.)

such like — such things. "I (studied) reading, arithmetic and such like." (Chicago Record, January 22, 1898.)

underhand — underhanded. We shall do nothing underhand. (Chicago Daily News, December 3, 1897.)

use mean — to be mean to a person or take advantage of a person. "Those people have used me so mean." (Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1897.)

vaporings — ranting or unbelievable speech. There might possibly be something in the vaporings of this criminal. (Chicago Inter Ocean, January 11, 1898.)

well fixed — well positioned, in good shape. "You will go back to Mexico well fixed." (Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1899.)

whole-thing — the main person. Mr. McEwen, the wily Scot and the broad-shouldered "whole-thing" of the prosecution. (New York Journal, September 16, 1897.)

widows’ weeds —  The dark mourning clothes worn by widows. All wore dark cloth dresses, modest enough for widows' weeds. (Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1898.)

yawping — talking, yapping. "If he knows so much about the abuses at Dunning why does he not come here and tell the story instead of yawping in a distant State?" (Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1898.)

© 2003 by Robert Loerzel.