Bowery boys

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Mar 16 21:49:01 UTC 2006

The OED has (August) 1840 for this word, an emblem of 19th C NY -- and
from a New Orleans newspaper, at that.

        Mr. Editor, -- In going up the Bowery cor. H---rsr [this is
not my typo] the other evening in company with a female I was hailed
by a few little Jeweller boys who make it a constant practice to seat
themselves on the stoop, and females when passing they cry out Hallo
Sis where are you bound, and making use of very improper language
which ought to be taken notice of.  If these young men don’t take
care, they will hear from me again.  BOWERY BOY.
        Ely’s Hawk & Buzzard, August 31, 1833 (ns II:4) p. 4, col. 1

        Our opinion of the Bowery Boys is, that they are a for more
spirited and respectable set of young men than the majority of the
shirt-collar-and-no-body loafers who are known as "Broadwayers."
        The Wag, December 7, 1839, p. 3, col. 2

Barry's NYC website has a race horse named Bowery Boy from 1829.

        I was looking in the OED for a definition that would explain
the origin of the name taken by a mid-19th C gang, the "Dead Rabbits",
as here:
        Juvenile Rioters. -- Two gangs of juvenile rowdies, varying in
ages from 8 to 14 years, one boasting in the title of Dead Rabbits,
and the other that of the Bowery Boys. . . .
        NY D Tribune, September 14, 1857, p. 7, col. 2
        One tale has it that a rival gang threw a (actual) dead rabbit
into the club-house of another, who thereupon took the name "Dead
Rabbits" in defiance.  A more likely seeming story is that "dead"
= "complete", "total" and "rabbit" = "thug", "tough guy"; this was the
meaning I was looking for in the OED.  Didn't find it, but perhaps
because it doesn't exist except in the imagination of this forgotten
etymologist I am quoting.  (I suppose that at least one of these
stories comes from Herbert Asbury's Gangs of NY; possibly Alvin
Harlow's Old Bowery Days, too.)
        In any event, I also didn't find the meaning for "rabbit" of a
runner in a race (human or horse) who sets a quick pace in its early
stages, not expecting to be able to continue that pace to the end, but
serving the purpose of either helping a stablemate to keep to an
appropriate pace or tempting a rival runner to exhaust himself trying
to keep up.  This sense has been around at least since the early
1960s -- I found it in the NYTimes from 1962, referring to a boys'
high school track meet -- in which one of the runners was name
Coniglio, as it happens.  (To be up-to-date, I should
say "ironically", I suppose.)
        The comparison is with the fake rabbit that the greyhounds
chase at a dog track.
        The closest the OED comes is:
1882 Standard 4 Sept. 6/2 Though somewhat of a ‘rabbit’, as a horse
that runs ‘in and out’ is sometimes called. 1900 F. P. DUNNE Mr.
Dooley's Philos. 170 ‘Well,’ says th' horse rayporther, ‘they's a
couple iv rabbits goin' to sprint around th' thrack at th' fair
groun's,’ he says.
Both race horses, but not this sense.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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