Historical Slang Print Resources for Novelists, Part Two: Military and Slang of Specific Fields

“Furry thing,” not “rabbit”: British fishermen in the 20th century had a superstition about never saying the word “rabbit.”

This continues my series on historical slang, listing print books on military slang and slang of specific fields that will help you incorporate period-correct historical slang in your novel.

If your local library doesn’t own a title from the list you’d like to consult, many public libraries will fill an interlibrary loan request to borrow them from other libraries.  Failing that, you can try Abebooks.com or Amazon to locate used copies to purchase.



A Dictionary of Army and Navy Slang, by Park Kendall and Johnny Viney.  M.S. Mill, 1941.

Notice the publication date: 1941.  So this volume isn’t going to include slang coined during World War II or later.  It contains separate sections for army and navy terms, and the definitions are brief.  But if you are setting a novel in the 1930s in a U.S. military setting, this would be a good book to consult.

Sea Slang: a Dictionary of the Old-Timers’ Expressions and Epithets, by Frank C. Bowen.  Sampson Low, Marston & Co., [no date].

The introduction in the copy I consulted says that the author was an enlisted seaman in the Great War, but the slang he knew from that time, which was “quite closely allied to the Navy of Nelson’s day,” had disappeared by the time he visited the Mediterranean fleet in 1927.  Bowen was inspired to record the old timers’ naval slang before it vanished as the men died off.  So this book would be useful as a source for slang in the British navy in novels set in the 19th century through World War I, e.g. “parted brassrags,=quarreled”, and, “dead marine=empty bottle.”

Sea Slang of the Twentieth Century, by Wilfred Granville.  Philosophical Library, 1950.

Dead marines, in sea slang

Granville offers sea slang current between 1900-1949 in British watercraft situations, including the Royal Navy, merchant navy, yachtsmen, canal boat operators, and fishermen.  “Cuffer=improbable story,” and “furry things=rabbits” (fishermen had a superstition about never naming the animal.)  An author thinking about setting a book on water in the first half of the 20th century might get some plot ideas by browsing this volume.

A Sea of Words: a Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales, by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf, and J. Worth Estes.  Holt, 1995.

While some of the entries are definitions of naval terms rather than slang per se, it contains enough early 19th century slang to qualify for this list.  Authors and fans of sea stories set in the age of sail will equally find it useful:  “Pipe one’s eye=to shed tears, cry,” or, “Billet=an appointment, post, or berth.”

Vietnam War Slang: a Dictionary on Historical Principles, by Tom Dalzell.  Routledge, 2014.

Dalzell says the U.S. troops in Vietnam “used slang to construct a positive, collective identity, communal values, and solidarity.”  He includes quotations to give the terms context, with dates, and the volume has an impressive bibliography.  “New meat=freshly-arrived inexperienced soldier,” or, “oj=marijuana joint dipped in opium.”

Songs and Slang of the British Soldier, 1914-1918, 3rd ed., edited by John Brophy and Eric Partridge.  Eric Partridge Ltd., 1931.

While the emphasis of the book seems to be on the songs of the war, each section is accompanied by a lengthy glossary meant to explain references in the songs, but which also serve as Great War dictionaries of slang.  “Eye-wash=official deceit or pretentiousness”; or, “mongey=food.”

Soldier’s Songs and Slang of the Great War, by Martin Pegler.  Osprey, 2014.

Pegler attempts to update Brophy and Partridge (above listing) as the first half of his book, and the second is a compilation of songs popular among UK soldiers in the war, with lyrics.  Illustrations include sheet music covers and political cartoons.  “Cherry nob=military policeman,” or, “dug-out disease=soldier’s reluctance to leave the safety of a shelter.”

The Language of World War II, revised/enlarged ed., compiled by A. Marjorie Taylor.  H.W. Wilson, 1948.

In WWII slang, a
“look- stick”

This book didn’t set out to be a slang dictionary, per se, but a compilation of “quotations, slogans, poster captions, and song titles” and initialized government agencies.  But the result would still be useful to a novelist, as a collection of war-related language published at the time it was current.  “G.I. Moe=Army mule,” “See the chaplain=resigning oneself to unpleasantry that can’t be fixed,” “Wilco=will comply.”  The language is American-heavy, but some British terms are also included.

A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang 1939-1945, edited by Eric Partridge, Wilfred Granville, and Frank Roberts.  Books for Libraries Press, 1970 (c1948).

This is a compilation of Royal Army, Navy, and Air Force slang during World War II.  Entries note which service the term was prevalent in, and also note if a term was common in Canadian or Australian branches.  “Creepers=rubber-soled boots worn by night patrols”, “look-stick=telescope”, “red-arse=new soldier.”

Diggerspeak: the Language of Australians at War, by Amanda Laughesen.  Oxford, 2005.

The author “looks at the way language was shaped by war…focuses primarily on ‘Australian-only’ words—that is, those words that became part of Australian English and were uniquely Australian”—introduction p. vii.  Many of the terms are from World Wars I and II, plus Vietnam.  “Giggle suit=Army fatigue dress,” or, “oil=information, news.”


Sports slang

Sports Roots: How Nicknames, Namesakes, Trophies, Competition, and Expressions in the World of Sports Came To Be, by Harvey Frommer.  Atheneum, 1979.

The introduction doesn’t specify, but this book seems American-centric, although some British terms are included, such as “Busby Babes” for Manchester United.   Many entries explain nicknames of famous athletes, or explain the background to a sports expression, so I’d have to say it’s only partly a slang dictionary.

Political slang

Political Slang, 1750-1850, by Uno Philipson.  Kraus Reprint, 1968.

This was originally published in 1941 by C.W.K. Gleerup.  It is “an attempt to collect and discuss the slang used in politics from about 1750 to 1850”—introduction, p.3.   It seems to limit itself to British politics of the named period.  “Jack in office=a consequential petty official,” “be nowhere=to be badly beaten in a race.”  It’s not in a dictionary format, so use the index to find the page that describes your term.

Transport slang

Herb’s Hot Box of Railroad Slang, by J. Herbert Lund.  Jay Herbert Publishing, 1975.

“A compendium of only a small portion of railroad slang and vernacular”—introduction.  Each term is given two pages, one with a short poem using the word and an explanation, and the other a drawing illustrating it.  It seems to be American-centered. The last section gives short biographies of railroad men who were awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for heroism.

Truck Talk: the Language of the Open Road, by Montie Tak.  Chilton Book Company, 1971.

20th century truckers who hauled nitroglycerine were called “suicide jockeys”

The author worked for a trucking firm and interviewed truckers to come up with this book.  Note the publication date, 1971: this just predates the citizen’s band radio era that boomed in the mid-1970s, so it lacks terms current then—no listing for “bear” meaning police, for example.   It does offer “reach for the air=apply the brakes,” and, “suicide jockey=trucker who hauls nitroglycerin.”

A Collection of College Words and Customs, by B.H. Hall.  John Bartlett, 1856.

This is an American publication, but this particular edition has added “technicalities peculiar to the English universities…”—introduction, vi.  It’s in dictionary format, and while it define terms peculiar to 19th century higher education, it also offers descriptions of customs in vogue at the more prominent U.S. universities.  For example, the listing for “manners” discusses rules at Harvard about freshmen not being allowed to wear a hat in the Yard unless it is raining or snowing.  This would be a great idea-generator to browse, for someone wanting to set a novel at an American college in the  mid-1800s.

Also available on Project Gutenberg:  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12864

University slang

University Slang, by Morris Marples.  Williams & Norgate, 1950.

This guide to English university slang is not formatted like a dictionary and does not have an index, so it’s a bit difficult to use.  You have to look at page 20 for a list of general articles, such as “drink” or “servant” and then find the section that covers those general topics.  I was amused to see a section on “latrine,” listing examples such as “visiting Lady Periam,” the euphemism used at Balliol.   Perhaps more fun to dip into for story ideas, rather than using as a straightforward definition guide.

Medical slang

Dictionary of Medical Slang and Related Esoteric Expressions, by J.E. Schmidt.  Charles C Thomas, 1959.

The physician author says in the introduction that the book “is based primarily on my private collection…It includes medical slang terms that were current in the 14th century, as well as those that were born yesterday.”  It has an odd format:  you can find out that “salted” means immunized against a disease by looking up either “salted” or “immunized.”  On leafing through it, there seem to be a high proportion of terms related to sex and the nether regions (e.g., it lists about 30 synonyms for “going to the toilet”).   Twenty-first century readers may be appalled by the far-from-politically correct nature of some of the entries.

Criminal slang

Criminal Slang: the Vernacular of the Underworld Lingo, by Vincent J. Monteleone.  Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2003.

Idiot stick,
in mid-20th century US criminal slang

This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1949, so it would be a guide to crime slang in the mid-20th century.  The author was not a lexicographer: he was in U.S. law enforcement fields and collected these words he encountered while working among “racketeers, gangsters, tramps, and hobos”—foreword.  “Idiot stick=a shovel,” “Rake-off=a dishonest profit,” or, “Turnip=a gold watch.”


Wicked Words: a Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present, by Hugh Rawson.  Crown, 1989.

If characters in your novel need to resort to insults, this could guide you to correct terms for your time period.  “Fink” meaning “an odious person, especially an informer,” arose during the late 19th century labor movement, according to the author.  “Whelp,” meaning “a young person, especially an insolent one,” dates from the 14th century.  I couldn’t find it spelled out in the introductory material, but this seems to draw most heavily from British and especially American sources.



About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.



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