The City in Slang

The City in Slang : New York Life and Popular Speech

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The American urban scene, and in particular New York's, has given us a rich cultural legacy of slang words and phrases, a bonanza of popular speech. Hot dog, rush hour, butter-and-egg man, gold digger, shyster, buttinsky, smart aleck, sidewalk superintendent, yellow journalism, breadline, straphanger, tar beach, the Tenderloin, the Great White Way, to do a Brodie--these are just a few of the hundreds of popular words and phrases that were born or took on new meaning in the streets of New York. In The City in Slang, Irving Lewis Allen traces this flowering of popular expressions that accompanied the emergence of the New York metropolis beginning in the early nineteenth century, providing in effect a lexicon of popular speech about city life as well as a unique account of the cultural and social history of America's greatest city. He shows how this vocabulary arose from city streets, often interplaying with vaudeville, radio, movies, comics, and the popular songs of Tin Pan Alley. Some terms of great pertinence to city people today have unexpectedly old pedigrees. Rush hour was coined by 1890, for instance, and rubberneck dates to the late 1890s and became popular in New York to describe the busloads of tourists who craned their necks to see the tall buildings and the sights of the Bowery and Chinatown. The Big Apple itself (since 1971 the official nickname of New York) appeared in the 1920s, though first in reference to the city's top racetracks and to Broadway bookings as pinnacles of professional endeavor. Allen also tells fascinating stories behind once-popular slang that is no longer in use. Spielers, for example, were the little girls in tenement districts who danced ecstatically on the sidewalks to the music of the hurdy-gurdy men and, when they were old enough, frequented the dance halls of the Lower East Side. Following the trail of these words and phrases into the city's East Side, West Side, and all around the town, from Harlem to Wall Street, and into the haunts of its high and low life, The City in Slang is a fascinating look at the rich cultural heritage of language about city life.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 321 pages
  • 157.48 x 233.68 x 27.94mm | 725.74g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • line figures
  • 0195075919
  • 9780195075915

About Irving Lewis Allen

About the Author: Irving Lewis Allen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.show more

Review Text

A professor goes slumming through the dives and byways of Gotham, a la Henry Higgins, to hear what people have to say and to tell us what it means. Allen (Sociology/University of Connecticut, Storrs) approaches his subject from a historical rather than a linguistic point of view. "Most historical slang," he maintains, "can be associated with urbanization...and more directly with urbanism - the distinctive culture that emerges from this social form." The prodigious growth of N.Y.C. during the second half of the 19th century, Allen explains, created a city of immense complexity and harshness, one whose impersonality could only be broken down through the development of distinct social categories and an argot that succinctly described the new patterns of daily life. Colloquial speech thus became a kind of specialized code that sorted every fresh experience into a set of recognizable categories. Allen organizes these expressions according to subject ("The Bright Lights"; "Mean Streets"; "The Sporting Life," etc.) and provides etymologies and background information for each. He succeeds nicely, for the most part, in shading in the picture of the city that these expressions sketch, but his etymologies are frequently wide of the mark and poorly documented, and his knowledge of present-day New York seems quite limited. Fortunately for the reader, however, the scholarship is inconspicuous enough not to detract from the history, which is anecdotal and very rich. A good read that puts on airs: Allen should have dropped the philology and stuck to his chronicle of the urban scene. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Rating details

12 ratings
3.25 out of 5 stars
5 8% (1)
4 25% (3)
3 58% (7)
2 0% (0)
1 8% (1)
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