[Ads-l] Nightmare Alley slang

Bill Mullins amcombill at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Sep 26 23:22:12 EDT 2016

In 2010, the NY Review of Books reissued William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley" with an introduction by Nick Tosches.  In it, Tosches suggests that the book was the first time that several terms appeared in the language.

geek (carnival sense).  Tosches said the novel preceded what was the otherwise earliest known usage from Billboard in Aug 1946.  The OED has been updated since then (to 1919), and Fred Shapiro just located a 1912 citation.  Nightmare Alley almost certainly introduced the term into general usage.

Cold Reading:  Tosches says "The phrase “cold reading” almost certainly appeared in print for the first time here."  "Cold reading" (revealing personality traits without prior knowledge, from a combination of making generic statements and reacting to cues from the person being read) is not in the OED.   It's always dangerous to say something is the "first", but Tosches may be right here.  I've searched extensively in the conjuring literature and can't find an antedating for the phrase.

spook racket:  Referring to false mediums who allow the living to speak with the dead.
_Three Oaks [MI] Press_ Jan 19 1894 p 1 col 3
"The notorious spiritualistic medium, Joe King, of Benton Harbor, is again under arrest, this time he was working his spook racket at Battle Creek, and when the "spirit" appeared two men caught it and after a desperate struggle King was unmasked and lugged off to police head-querters[sic]."

_Genii_ Oct 1937 p 49 
"Madame Houdini herself will appear in the photoplay and her vast experience in tracking down the nefarious and unscrupulous religious racketeers will so vividly expose their methods that the spook racket will be ripped wide open."
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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