CLOSE
Original image

31 Old Timey Slang Terms for "Informant"

Original image

We’ve used the term “rat” to refer to an informer since approximately 1910. But Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld, published first in 1949 with a second edition in 1961, shows that in the Cant language of the underworld—which first appeared in Britain in the 16th century and the United States in the 18th—criminals have many more names for snitches. Here are some of them. 

1. Abaddon: This term dates to circa 1810-80 and means "a thief who informs on his fellow rogues." It comes from the Hebrew abaddon, a destroyer.

2. Bark: Similar to "to squeak" and "to squeal," bark, as defined by the 1889 glossary Police!meant "to inform (to the police)." It was obsolete by 1930.

3. Beefer: In the 1899 glossary Tramping with Tramps, Josiah Flynt writes that a beefer is "One who squeals on, or gives away, a tramp or criminal." By the 1930s, the word—American in origin—had moved from tramps to become slang for police and journalists, according to Partridge.

4. Bleat: Lambs aren't the only ones who do this. When informants bleat, they give information to the police. Partridge cites November 8, 1836's The Individual: "Ven I'm corned, I can gammon a gentry cove, Come the fawney-rig, the figging-lay, and never vish to bleat." The term was obsolete in Britain by 1890, but as of 1920 was a current slang term in the U.S.

5. Blobber: According to Henry Leverage's "Dictionary of the Underworld" from Flynn's magazine, this is an American term for an informer from early 1925.

6. Blue: A verb meaning "to blew it; to inform (to the police)," according to the H. Brandon's 1839 book Poverty, Mendicity and Crime, and J.C. Hotten's The Slang Dictionary from 1859. It was common slang by 1890, as noted in Farmer & Henley's Slang and its Analogues.

7. Cabbage Hat: A mostly Pacific Coast term for an informer, circa 1910; a rhyming on rat, according to D.W. Mauer and Sidney J. Baker's "'Australian' Rhyming Argot in the American Underworld," which appeared in American Speech in October 1944.

8. Crysler: A punny reference (of American origin) to Chrysler cars meaning "a squealer; a traitor; a coward," according to Leverage's "Dictionary of the Underworld."

9. Cocked Hat: Another Pacific Coast rhyme on rat, circa 1910, that means "informer to the police."

10. Come Copper: A 1905 term for someone who gave information to the police.

11. Come it / Come it as strong as a horse: Come it (or, verbally, coming it) dates back to 1812, and means to be an informer. "Come it strong" meant to do a thing vigorously, and according to Egan's Grouse in 1823, "They say of a thief, who has turned evidence against his accomplices, that he is coming all he knows, or that he comes it as strong as a horse."

12. Conk: As a noun, conk dates back to the early 1800s and means "a thief who impeaches his accomplices; a spy; informer, or tell tale." As a verb, it means to inform to the police, and was often verbally called "conking it." Conk was obsolete by 1900.

13. Dropper Man: An Australian term, circa 1910, for a habitual informer to the police. "A man that drops information; also, he causes men to 'drop' or 'fall' (be arrested)," notes Sidney J. Baker in 1945's The Australian Language.

14. Finger Louse: This American term, dating back to the 1930s, is an elaboration of finger, meaning to take the fingerprints of a person.

15. Fizgig / Fizzgig: This slang term for an informer, circa 1910, may have derived from fizgig, Australian for "fishing spear." "Often shorted to fiz(z)," Partridge writes. "By contemptuous euphemism; not unrelated to thingamyjig."

16. Grass: This word—short for grasshopper (circa 1920), rhyming on copper—dates back to the 1930s. "Come grass" is also used to describe someone who informs to the police.

17. Knock-Down: Giving information to police, circa 1910.

18. Lemon: A 1934 American term meaning "one who turns State's evidence" because he has "turn[ed] sour on his confederates."

19. Narking Dues: Partridge says this British phrase is "used when someone has been, or is, laying information with the police." It appeared in 1896's A Child of the Jago: 

Presently, he said: "I bin put away this time . . ." — "Wot?" answered Bill, "narkin' dues is it?" — Josh nodded. — "'Oo done it then? 'Oo narked?"

The term was obsolete by 1940, but the word "nark" lives on.

20. Nose / To Nose / Turn Nose:  Nose is a 1789 word for a snitch; to nose or turn nose, both circa 1809, meant to give evidence or inform.

21. On the Erie: A 1933 term, American in origin, for someone who makes a living by informing to the police, i.e., "That mug has always been on the Erie." (This term can also mean "shut up! Someone is listening.")

22. Pigeon: An American verb, dating back to 1859, meaning to inform to the police.

23. Puff: A British term for a King's informer, dating back to 1735; obsolete by 1890.

24. Quatch: An American term, circa 1925, meaning "to betray secrets." Similar to quack, a verb meaning "to inform to the police," and quag, "unsafe, not reliable; not to be trusted."

25. Scream: A noun, circa 1915, for "the giving of information to police, especially by one criminal against another." Partridge notes that by 1920, it began to mean the same as to squeal. From 1915's The Melody of Death:

"I don't want to hear any more about your conscience," said the [police] officer wearily. "Do you scream or don't you?"

By 1925, the term had hopped across the pond from England to the United States.

26. Snake in the Grass: An American term for an informer who conceals his informing, circa 1925.

27. Snickle: A confusion of snitch and snilch, this American term meaning "to inform to the police" dates back to 1859; it was obsolete by 1920.

28. Telegram: Australian term, circa 1899, for a spy or informer.

29. Turn Chirp: A British term from 1846 for turning the King's evidence. Comes from G.W.M. Reynolds' "The Thieves' Alphabet," in The Mysteries of London: "N was for a Nose that turned chirp on his pal." Partridge wonders, "Does it exist elsewhere?"

30. Viper: An American term, circa 1925. "Contemptuous," Partridge notes, "'a snake in the grass.'"

31. Weak Sister: This term dates back to 1924, and doesn't just mean an informer, but "an untrusted person, or a weakling, in a gang."

Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

Original image
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
arrow
Lists
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
Original image
An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios