Slang and the City: 5 Phrases Born in Gangster New York

In days gone by, the rough-and-rowdy residents of New York City’s Chinatown and Little Italy practically invented their own wild and colorful language—usually to describe illegal activities. You can learn about those escapades on our Gangsters’ New York Scavenger Hunt, which delves into the infamous gangs of the Five Points and beyond.

For a taste of the fun, here are some 19th-century slang terms that would’ve been used in the area and the stories behind them.

Did He Wear Smarty Pants?

Turns out the original Smart Alec was probably a New Yorker: one Aleck Hoag, a thief who enjoyed great success in the 1840s, with help from his prostitute wife, Melinda.

Melinda would, um, distract a gentleman while Aleck would pluck his wallet and pass it off to another accomplice by the name of French Jack. They also worked the popular “panel game”: Melinda would lure a customer into a room, and while the gentleman was preoccupied, Aleck would slide open a wall panel and nab the dupe’s wallet.

Cleverly, Aleck kept the trio out of jail by paying off two policemen. Not so cleverly, he then tried to cheat them. You can guess the result. After that, cops had a new nickname for con artists who outsmarted themselves.

Before They Called It Roughage

Sometimes the law can inspire creative cuisine. Take the case of the brick sandwich. In 1896, New York State attempted to control the retail liquor trade by enacting the Raines Law, which in part prohibited saloons from selling booze on Sunday. However, an exception was made for hotels—and to be a hotel, your establishment had to have 10 bedrooms and, in an oddly specific twist, serve sandwiches with your liquor.

Wouldn’t you know it, many saloons started to pass themselves off as “hotels,” with rudimentary bedrooms scraped together and sandwiches that were more prop than proper food. Perhaps because they were literally two slices of bread with a brick between them, such dubious delectables were dubbed brick sandwiches.

Swearing of the Green

You ever take a good look at the Belgian paving blocks in some of the city’s older streets? Sometimes improperly referred to as cobblestones, they are like loaves of granite that you would never want to have land on you. Yet they had a habit of becoming airborne during 19th-century riots, particularly in the hands of the Irish—or so popular belief had it. As a result, the blocks acquired a new name: Irish confetti. Good luck to you if that starts flyin’ around.

Kid, You’ve Got Spunk

In 19th-century New York, you might have encountered a spunk faker. If you were happy to see such a person, what do you suppose you were? (a) a smoker (b) a patent medicine vendor (c) the madame of a brothel catering to unusual requests (d) a pale person with tuberculosis

Ready for the answer? That would be (a) a smoker. Spunk fakers sold very cheap matches on the street. Because it required little investment to make crappy matches, spunk-faking was a common way for the destitute to make a little money.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

All of the following describe the same kind of place except one: snoozing ken, creep house, panel house, notchery, goosing slum, red-ink spot, and corinth. Which is the misfit?

That would be red-ink spot, old-timey slang for an Italian restaurant. Everything else on that list was a term for a brothel. Creep house and panel house, in particular, described brothels set up for the likes of “Smart Alec” Hoag to rob its customers. Ain’t history fun?

Find More Fun (Um, NOT at a Notchery)

Visit the public hunt calendar to find upcoming scavenger hunts in and around New York City, including the Gangsters’ New York Scavenger Hunt. Or contact us any time about scheduling a private scavenger hunt just about anywhere.