"tarrel" in Hammett?

Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM
Wed Apr 14 13:30:26 UTC 2010

Hammett (or his English protagonist) had been reading George Matsell's
_Vocabulum_ (1859) where a "tarrel" is defined as 'a skeleton key'.

Matsell is the only citation given in Partridge, _Dictionary of the
Underworld_ (1950 ed.), so it probably wasn't a very common term.  Partridge
has it as obsolete by 1900, but if he found it anywhere other than in
Matsell, he fails to indicate this.  I suspect the "obsolete by 1900" is
simply a guess or inference on Patridge's part.


> In Dashiell Hammett's 1924 story "The Golden Horseshoe," first
> published in _Black Mask_, a character (an Englishman) says:
>  The hotel-sneak used to be my lay... I was rather good at it.
>  I had the proper manner--the front. I could do the gentleman
>  without sweating over it, you know.... I had a rather
>  successful tour on my first American voyage. I visited most of
>  the better hotels between New York and Seattle, and profited
>  nicely. Then, one night in a Seattle hotel, I worked the
>  tarrel and put myself into a room on the fourth floor. I had
>  hardly closed the door behind me before another key was
>  rattling in it....
> Perhaps I'm missing an obvious dialect spelling or something,
> but what is _tarrel_ in this passage? I can't find another
> example of it anywhere, and it's not in the notes of the
> Library of America edition of Hammett's stories.
> Thanks.
> Jesse Sheidlower

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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