A few months back, I retired from my gig as an unpaid but dedicated language and grammar grouch. Y’all could have sent me a few thanks and maybe policed your own copy for a change, but nooooooo! So I’m coming out of retirement with some hot tips on slang, which is fun to use and adds color to your writing — but must be applied correctly, like commas, ellipses, and Preparation H.
What set me off is seeing, in a writers’ newsletter yet, the statement that a fictional character with the cops after her is “on the lamb.” The same facepalmer* appears in the online lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song “Wanted Man,” made famous by Johnny Cash: “If you ever see me coming and if you know who I am / Don’t you breathe it to nobody ’cause you know I’m on the lamb.”
As I’ve said a few times before, even if something clears spellcheck it can still be atrociously WRONG. The correct word is lam, which should be familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a vintage crime movie or cop show. The noun is defined as “a hasty escape or flight,” the verb “to run away quickly, escape, flee.” For example: “I’m gonna lam it outta here before Raylene finds that dead skunk in the dishwasher.”
Because I’m a public-spirited person,** I’m passing on some similar lingo from Damon Runyon, the author of the stories that became “Guys and Dolls,” and the master of American slang in the last century. (WARNING: some of these are not quite politically correct in this century.)
Croaker – a doctor, “croak” meaning “to die” in those times.
Loogan – fool, putz, sucker, etc. Sometimes misused as “outlaw.”
Fin – a five-dollar bill. From the Yiddish “finnif.”
Taking it on the Jesse Owens – a variation on “lam;” running extremely fast indeed.
Stinkeroo – what we now call an epic fail.
In spades – to the max. Derived from the spade being the highest suit in bridge.
Zillion – bigger than a billion, quadrillion, or trillion. See also squillionaire.
Sheep’s eye – an amorous glance.
Tomato – attractive woman or girl. See also pancake (I warned you).
Cemetery bait – a tomato whose husband is so jealous that any guy who gives this doll the sheep’s eye is apt to wind up in the boneyard unless he takes it on the lam.
Runyon was also a philosopher: “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” I won’t argue with that but since I’ve already got a rant going here, let’s settle the conundrum currently raging over “substitute.”
Q: What’s wrong with this sentence: “We’re often told to substitute saturated animal fats for healthier vegetable oils”?
A: Wouldn’t “Saturated Animal” be a great name for a band? Seriously, the problem is that the fats and oils are in reverse order: the newer should substitute for the older. I’ve also read that, “Over the centuries, the verb substitute has been used with a variety of prepositions for its oblique object.” Sorry, but I’m keeping my oblique object offline. I’m sticking with the Who, who wrote a song called “Substitute.”
I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah.
*A new slang word. Send royalty checks here.
**I can’t shut up and I’m desperate to expand my “platform,” if somebody could just explain what it means.