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17 Slangy Terms for Pickpockets to Put in Your Wallet

There have probably been pickpockets for as long as there have been pockets. And since crime and slang go together like peanut butter and chocolate, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of terms for this delicate but illegal art. Please enjoy the following terms, all recorded in the wonderful Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS), which has recently been released in a digital edition. Please enjoy these old-timey terms while keeping an eye peeled for their sneaky referents.

1. FINGER-SMITH

This term, around since the 1800s, might be the most logical. Since a locksmith is good with locks, a finger-smith is good with fingers, especially the kind of nimble digits that covertly snatch an iPhone or other pocket pal.

2. KNUCKLER

Here’s another hand-centric term, accentuating the primary tool of the pickpocket’s trade. It’s been around since the late 1700s, and a 1795 example from Sporting Mag is a righteous and florid denouncement of “A most daring gang of villains, denominated the genteel knucklers, who [...] supported themselves in extravagance and debauchery by the most atrocious acts of plunder.”

3. ABSTRACTIONIST

While an abstractionist can be the kind of artist whose work makes you rub your chin or scratch your head, it can also be a pickpocket, due to the sense of abstracting as taking away a meaning. I wonder if a painterly type of abstractionist has ever been down on their luck and became the dastardly type.

4. SLIP-GIBBET

Since the 1600s, slip-gibbet—a word that sounds like it could have been coined by Lewis Carroll—has been a pickpocket or other sort of thief. Why slip-gibbet? Because they slip the gibbet, of course—meaning they avoid the gallows.

5. AND 6. WORKER AND WORKMAN

While every pickpocket is working, this term has a specific sense when abstractionists are working in pairs: the worker is the one who actually grabs the wallet. In 1914, Walter Sickert wrote of a finger-smith: “All these he would carry with him so that he, the ‘worker,’ or the ‘tool,’ might have his mind and his hands freed for the masterstroke.” A worker can also be called a workman, as well as the more specific following term.

7. LEATHER WORKER

This term alludes to the usual composition of a wallet, a slip-gibbet’s object of desire. 

8. ST. GILES BUZZMAN

Green gives helpful background to this term, which is inspired by “the criminal slum, in the parish of St. Giles, at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, London, destroyed when New Oxford Street was cut through in 1847.” A buzzman buzzes (picks a peck of pocket)—much as a scofflaw from the following entry whizzes. Another related term is St. Giles’ Greek, a fantastic euphemism for slang, especially the criminal sort.

9., 10., 11., AND 12. WHIZ BOY, WHIZ MAN, WHIZ MOB, AND WHIZZER

Whiz Boy sounds like the worst teenage sidekick ever, but it would be a better name for a teen villain, because whiz (or whizz) boy is a part of a family of pickpocketological terms. You can also be a whiz artist, whiz man, or part of a whiz mob, if you pickpocket via gang. All those dastardly hoodlums can be described as on the whiz when working. This group of terms turned up in the early part of the 1900s.

13. AND 14. NIPPER AND BUNG-NIPPER

While nipping has several meanings, in this case, it’s the kind you don’t want to experience in a crowded subway car. Or anywhere, really. GDoS and the OED record an example from 1585: “Fleetwood in Ellis Original Letters 1st Ser. II. 278: He that could take a peece of sylver out of the purse without the noyse of any of the bells, he was adjudged a judiciall Nypper.” You can also be a bung-nipper, which involves an out-of-use sense of bung as a purse or pocket.

15. DUMMY-HUNTER

This term, which has been around since the early 1800s, would seem to cast aspersions on the intellect of the victim of a bung-nipper. Actually, the real etymology involves the quietness of a wallet, which presumably holds bills but no coins, helping the dummy-hunter greatly.

16. SLANGER

Given the healthy marriage of crime and slang, how appropriate that the word slang itself has stood for criminal activity once in a while. This term refers to a pickpocket who has an assistant, specifically one who scampers away with the goods after the thief slings them. Sling gave way to slang, thus this term.

17. THRUFF

The GDoS has no details on the etymology of this term, which appeared in the 1800s, but it just sounds cool. Beware thruffs!

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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