some queries

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Wed Nov 10 18:52:11 UTC 1999

Larry Rosenwald wrote:
>         Hi - I'd like to beg for a little help.  I have students working on
> 1) Maine English, and in general the linguistic history of Maine, 2)
> Appalachian English, 3) jargons in American English (she got interested in
> that _Smithsonian_ account of the military use of Native American words as
> a secret language in World War II).  I know a little about these things,
> but I'm wondering whether subscribers to this list might have bibliographic
> suggestions to make.  Off the top of your head only!  I don't want to ask
> anyone to rummage through files or libraries, just, if possible, to take a
> second and send me the obvious things that you know and I don't!
>         Thanks in advance, Larry Rosenwald


Okay, this is really off the top of my head.  I recently saw an
announcement of an Anchor Books 1999 reprint of David Maurer's *The Big
Con* (originally 1940, with a Paperback Books reprint about the same
time).  It's about confidence men and their argot, and reaches back to
around 1900 or so. It was one of the best-loved books of my ill-spent
teens, in part because I knew a couple of oldtime con men in Chicago
back in the 1940s. They were happy to talk about Maurer's book -- which
they knew well! -- because they knew most of his informants. They even
amplified on some of the incidents he reports.

Maurer's studies of underworld slang had an influence far beyond
academia.  Hollywood, in the 1930s, used to turn to him for authentic
gangster talk.  As I recall, terms like "gat" and "moll" and "yegg" got
to the soundtracks of the silver screen because Maurer passed them on.

I particularly recommend *The Big Con* because it was plagiarized into
the film "The Sting".  The first time I saw it, I recognized most of the
short cons in the early part of the film as coming straight from Maurer.
The elaborate setup of the Big Store (a fake betting parlor, complete
with fake gamblers and all) was pure Maurer. My first viewing was in
Mexico City while the film was in its first run back in the U.S.  The
Mexican theater ran it with an intermission.  Out in the lobby, I told
the people I was with to watch for the cackle bladder, and they were
impressed when it turned up in the blowoff. (Tell your student to read
The Big Con to translate the specialized terms in this paragraph.)

Maurer sued everybody involved with the film because it clearly was an
illicit use of his intellectual property. I don't know what happened to
the case -- it must have been filed pretty close to the year of his
death -- but it sure as hell should have been decided in his favor.

Thinking of *The Big Con* reminds me of Maurer's other books,
particularly *Languages of the Underworld", which I reviewed for
__American Anthropologist__.  (I accepted the invitation to review this
book as fast as I could, because of my background in linguistics and in
studying the underworld. Later, I discovered that Raven McDavid had
suggested me as the reviewer. He was perhaps the only one besides my
wife who knew of that part of my checkered career.  My wife worked for
Raven when he was completing the revision of Mencken's American
Language, and we spent a lot of time with him in those days.)

Yep, the more I think of it the more I think just about all of Maurer's
books could be just the kind of thing your student could follow up with
pleasure.  They're classic studies of U.S. jargons.

-- mike salovesh           <salovesh at>       PEACE !!!

P.S.: There was a show on the Navajo talkers of World War II recently on
the History Channel. If your student is following up on that story, it
would be worth searching for.

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