Raymond Chandler’s guide to prison, street, and Hollywood slang

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s film version of Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Long Goodbye.’
Raymond Chandler wanted to call his second Philip Marlowe novel The Second Murderer. His publisher Blanche Knopf nixed the idea. So, Chandler suggested Zounds, He Dies, a line spoken by the Second Murderer in Shakespeare’s King Richard III.

Knopf was deeply unimpressed. Eventually, the pair agreed on Farewell, My Lovely which is one hell of a killer title.

This is one of those little sidebars of information contained in Raymond Chandler’s Notebooks which were published long after the great man’s death in 1977. Chandler kept a variety of notebooks during his life. Usually small leather pocketbooks or large writing pads filled with daily events, observations, private thoughts, and details of work in progress. Unfortunately, the bulk of these notebooks was destroyed by Chandler when he was preparing to move to England after his wife Cissy’s death in 1954. Only two notebooks survived. Extracts from these two volumes supplied the content for The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler.

On occasion, Chandler has been unfairly given the rap that he was never as good as his rival Dashiell Hammett, as he made crime writing more about imagination than real hard-bitten, hard-earned experience. Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective. Chandler was a drunk oil exec down on his luck. He was a “gasbag,” according to the Demon Dog James Ellroy. His fictional hero Philip Marlowe was paraded through a series of hoops and jumps which were sometimes incoherent. It’s not a view I would ever agree with. I prefer Chandler to Hammett but think both writers took their writing very seriously.

This can be seen from what’s left of Chandler’s notebooks. He was a very serious writer, who worked damned hard at getting things just exactly right. In his notebooks, he practiced his writing and tried out his ideas. He also used them as a source book for research. From lists of street slang to working out titles, similes, and even writing parodies of other authors like Ernest Hemingway.

Among the many book titles listed in the two remaining notebooks are such unlikely gems:

The Man with the Shredded Ear

All Guns are Loaded

The Corpse Came in Person

They Only Murdered Him Once

The Diary of a Loud Check Suit

Quick, Hide the Body

Stop Screaming—It’s Me

The Black-Eyed Blonde


Everyone Says Good-bye Too Soon

You get the idea Chandler was a fun guy if just a little too shy to get the party swinging.

What interested me about Chandler’s notebooks (well, apart from his notes on writing crime fiction) were the long lists of slang he compiled from the streets and from newspapers, a few of which I’ve shared below.

Pickpocket Lingo

(Maybe New York only)

Saturday Evening Post, October 21, 1950

Cannon—General term for pickpocket (Dip is unused, obsolete)

Live cannon—A thief who works on normally situated people, as opposed to a roller (a lushworker) who frisks drunks. Both men knock their victims. Rousters walk with the victim pretending to help; sneak workers don’t touch him unless he is passed out or near to it.

Pit worker—Inside-breast-pocket expert.

Moll buzzer—Operator on women’s handbags.


Short—Bus, street car, any public conveyance.

Stride—Walking (“On the stride.”)

Shed—Railroad station.



Button—Police badge.

Kiss the dog—Work face to face with the victim.

Tail pits—Right and left side pockets of jacket.

Pratt—Rear trouser pocket.

Stall—Accomplice who creates confusion to fix the victim’s attention.

Right fall—Grand larceny conviction. To obtain there must be testimony that the accused had his hand in the victim’s pocket and was caught with the goods still on him. Most arrests are for “jostling,” which is a misdemeanor good for no more than six bits (months). A shove is enough when the shover is a known operator.

Hanger binging—Opening women’s handbags without stealing the bag.

Tweezer—Change purse.

Stiff—A newspaper or other shield to hide operations.

Wire or hook—The actual live cannon, as opposed to the stall.

Shot—A young pickpocket just starting to work (Harlem cant).

Fan the scratch—To locate money in a pocket without putting the hand in, i.e., by touch.

Dunnigan worker—Thieves who hang around comfort stations hoping for a coat left on a hook.

Note: A cannon never takes your money. He forks his fingers over it and moves away from it with a shove.

The great Raymond Chandler.
San Quentin Prison Slang

Quoted by former Warden Holohan in Los Angeles Times.

(Well-known terms omitted.)

Beak - Judge

Buried - held incommunicado

Broom - Disappeared hastily

Bonarue (Fr.) - Good

Box - Safe and also phonograph

Bank - Shot of dope

Back door parole - Die in prison

Blow your copper - Lose good conduct credits

Buck - Priest

Case dough - Limited dough

Caught in a snowstorm - Cocained up

Crazy alley - Fenced-in section for daffy prisoners

Copper-hearted - Informer by nature

Crib - Safe

Crow McGee - No good, not real

Cecil - Cocaine

Croaker - Doctor

Copper - Good prison records

Cop a heel - Assault from behind

Dinah - Nitroglycerine

Dropper - Paid killer

Duffer - Bread

Eye - Detective

Fog - Shoot

Fall money - Bail and legal fees

Fin - Five dollar bill

Fin up - Five years to live

Grease - Protection money

Glom - Steal, grab

Gum heel - Cop

Herder - Guard in prison

Hincty - Suspicious

Jinny - Blind pig

Lifeboat - Pardon, commutation of sentence

McCoy - Genuine (opposed to Crow McGee)

Nose - Police spy

On the Erie - Shut up! someone is listening

Office - Signal

On the muscle - Quarrelsome, ready for trouble

Put the cross on - Mark for death

Roscoe - Gat, hand gun

Shag - Worthless

Slam off - Die (not kill)

Swamp - Arrest

Slim - Police spy

Sneeze - Kidnap

Spear - Arrest

Shin - Knife, contraband weapon, shotgun

Siberia - Solitary confinement cells

Tommy Gee - Machine gunner

Cover to the movie tie-in edition of ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ featuring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.
Narcotics Squad Slang

pin-jabber—hypo user


dodo—any addict

gow—a dope, as “gowed up”

kick the gong around—use dope (Harlem)

daisy crushers—shoes

pearl diver—dish washer

fancy pants—(verb) to act cagily or coyly

Hard Harry—a hard guy

Slang and Hard Talk

chicago lightning—gunfire

dip the bill—take a drink


cough yourself off—beat it

eel juice—liquor

creased, bent—knocked off, also stolen

circulation drops—drinks


squibbed off—shot

new street—new girl

give her hello—say hello to her

kick the joint—break in

under glass—in prison, caught

Hollywood Slang

baggage-smasher—clumsy person


duchess—a girl in the money

fluff—baby doll


garbo—a highhat

jail break—time out to eat

mob it—break formation

queen bee—show off

sock the clock—punch the time clock

toots—chorus boy (getting stale)

X ray—still photo

zubber—a cane and spats guy

Below, an interview between Chandler and Ian Fleming recorded by the BBC in 1958, where the two authors compare notes on their fictional heroes Philip Marlowe and James Bond, the kinds of villains they meet, the differences between the English “tea and muffins” detective and the American private eye. Chandler describes the particulars of a Mafia hit and declares his amazement at how quickly Fleming could write a Bond novel.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
10:30 am



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