Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » August 2005 » Dictionary of Americanisms

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08/25/2005: Dictionary of Americanisms

”On August 26, 1848, an inconspicuous scholar named John Russell Bartlett published his Dictionary of Americanisms. As Bartlett recalled in his autobiography, he became fascinated with books ‘in which the vulgar language of the United States abounded.’ (vulgar then meaning “of the people”).”

It’s amazing what words we now take as “everyday,” ho-hum colloquialisms, which were once novel and new coinage:
“Part of the progress of American thought has been the growing feeling that slang is bodacious and fantabulous. More and more of us have come to view slang as the bee’s knees, the cat’s whiskers, and the cat’s pajamas. Slang is hot and slang is cool. Slang is wicked and slang is nifty. Slang is far out, groovy, and outa sight. Slang is fresh, fly, phat. Slang is ace, awesome, bad, copacetic, ducky, sweet, smooth, the max, the most, and totally tubular.

According to H.L. Mencken, the word slang developed in the eighteenth century (it was first recorded in 1756) either from an erroneous past tense of sling (sling-slang-slung) or from language itself, as in (thieve)s’lang(uage) and (beggar)s'lang(uage).

To read just a few of these American GEMs, click on the "more" Button.

ABSQATULATE: To run away, to abscond.

BACON: as in “To save one’s Bacon.” A vulgar expression, meaning to save one flesh flesh from injury, to preserve one’s flesh from harm or punishment.

BALDERDASH: Empty babble, nonsensical talk.

TO BAMBOZZLE: To deceive, to impose upon: to confound. To make a fool of anyone; to humbug or impose upon him.

BIG-WIGS: People of consequence.

BLUE-BERRY: A fruit resembling the whortleberry in appearance and taste.

BLUSTERATION: The noise of a braggart.

CATAWAMPTIOUSLY CHAWED UP: Completely demolished, utterly defeated.

CRIMANY: Interjection of sudden surprise.

FIDGETY: Restless, impatient.

TO FLASH IN THE PAN: To fail of success. A metaphor borrowing from a gun, which, after being primed and ready to be discharged, flashes in the pan.

CURMUDGEON: An avaricious, churlish fellow; a miser. (In explaining this word, Dr. Ash made a ludicrous mistake, from his ignorance of the French language. He took the word from Johnson, who derives it from coeur-mérchant andwho gives as his authority an “unknown correspondent.” As there words immediately follow the French, Dr. Ash supposed them to be the English [translation] of coeur-mérchant -- And accordingly says” Curmudgeon, from the French coeur, unknown and mérchant, correspondent.”)

DEAD AS A DOORNAIL: Utterly, completely dead. The figure is that ofa nail driven into wood, and , therefore, perfectly immovable; the word door is used for the sake of the alliteration. It is sometimes changed with us into the less appropriate phrase: “As dead as a hammer.”

DAWDLE: To loiter, to lounge, especially over one’s work.


TO FOB OFF: To delude by a trick.

FOGY: A stupid fellow.

GUFFAW: A hearty, boisterous laugh, a horse laugh.


HONEY-FOGLE: To swindle, to cheat; to lay plans to deceive.

HUCKLEBERRY: The common whortleberry.

LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL: The whole. A figurative expression borrowed from sportsmen and having reference to a gun.

LOCO-FOCO: The name by which the Democratic party is extensively distinguished throughout the United States. This name originated in the year 1835, when a division arose in the party, in consequence of the nomination of Gideon Lee as the democratic candidate for Congress, by the committee chosen for that purpose. This nomination, as was customary, had to be confirmed at a general meeting of Democrats held at Tammany Hall. [Lee’s friends (Tammany Men) anticipated opposition (Equal Rights party) and assembled in large numbers to support him. A dispute arose over who to select as committee chairman.] A very tumultuous and confused scene ensued, during which the gas-lights were extinguished. The Equal Rights party…had provided themselves with loco-foco matches and candles and the room was re-lighted in a moment. The ‘Courier and Enquirer’ newspapers dubbed the anti-monopolists, who used the matches, with the name Loco-Foco’s, which was soon after given to the Democratic party.

TO MIZZLE: To run away, to abscond.

NINE-KILLERS: The popular name of the Northern Butcher-bird. In Canada, and the Eastern States, it is sometimes called Mocking-Bird. “The name of the nine-killer,” says Dr, DeKay, “is derived from the popular belief that it catches and impales nine grasshoppers in a day.”

OURN: For ours.

PICAYUNE: Sixpenny (the name for a Spanish half-real in Florida and Louisiana). Sometimes used metaphorically for small.

PHEESE: A fit of fretfulness.

MITTEN: When a gentleman is jilted by a lady, or is discarded by one whom he has been paying his addresses, he is said to have “got the mitten.”

PEE-WEE: The name given by boys to a little marble.

PETER FUNK: At the petty auction a person is employed to bid on articles put up for sale, in order to raise their price. Such person is called a “Peter Funk”: probably from such a name having been frequently given when article were bought in.

SANCTIMONIOUSLYFIED: This queer work explains itself.

SLANG-WHANGER: This curious word is defined by Mr. Pickering, as signifying “a writer or noisy talker, who make the use of that sort of political or other cant, which amuses the rabble, and is called by the vulgar name of slang.

TO SMOUZE: To demolish, as with a blow.

SOSSLE or SOZZLE: A lazy or sluttish woman. (To Sozzle: To loll; to lounge, to go lazily or sluttishly about the house.)

WAMBLE-CROPPED: Sick at the stomach; and figuratively, wretched, humiliated.

And Finally:
Thus did John Russell Bartlett, on may 28, 1886, at the age of 81, assume room temperature, bite the dust, but the farm, breathe his last, bump off, check out, croak, deep six, give up the ghost, head for the hearse, head for the last roundup, kick off, kick the bucket, lie down one last time, lie with the lilies, meet his maker, meet Mr. Jordan, pass in his checks, permanently change his address, pull the plug, push up daisies, return to the dust, slip the cable, sprout wings, take a dirt nap, take the last count, travel to kingdom come, turn up his toes, go across the creek, go belly up, go blooey and flooey, go down the tube, go to his glory, go south, go west – and, of course, die.


Karen on 08.25.05 @ 03:48 AM CST

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