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The Lingo of Film Noir

For film buffs, 30 days hath Noirvember, a month devoted to appreciation of the film noir genre. “Noirvember”—an elegant example of a portmanteau word — was coined in 2010 by film writer Marya E. Gates, who continues to promote the celebration on old and new media. (On Twitter, she’s @oldfilmsflicker.) I’m a noir fan myself, and I’m celebrating Noirvember by sharing some of the linguistic features of these taut, tough films from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“Film noir” was first applied to a group of American films by French critics in 1955, when the genre was already fading from fashion. What those critics meant is still the subject of endless argument. Let’s just say that film noir is more a mood than a category: cynical, sardonic, often bleak, even when happy endings are tacked on. “Wherever you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you,” laments Al Roberts, the downward-spiraling protagonist of Detour (1945), one of the cheaply made classics of the form.  Even more succinctly: “It’s a bitter little world,” is how Joan Bennett’s character sums it up in Hollow Triumph (1948).

Film noir is often associated with visual tropes such as wet city sidewalks, deep shadows, and oblique or “Dutch” camera angles. (“Dutch” here has nothing to do with the Netherlands; it’s a corruption of “Deutsch,” or German. German filmmakers introduced the technique as part of Expressionist style, and many of them brought it with them to Hollywood when they fled Nazism in the 1930s.) But it’s also marked by a linguistic style: quick-paced and slangy, yet restrained by the self-censorship rules of the Motion Picture Production Code.

The Code, which held sway between 1934 and 1968, prohibited a wide range of language in Hollywood scripts. Damn and hell were taboo “unless used reverently” — “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was nixed in a World War II movie — and stronger language was simply out of the question. So were a lot of words that seem innocuous to us in 2021: broad (a woman), cripes (a “minced oath” derived from “Christ”), lousy, and nuts (“except when meaning crazy”). A character could say that a scheme “sounds nuts,” but he couldn’t exclaim “Aw, nuts!” when the plan was foiled. (Read more about the evolution of nuts in my March 2021 post for the Strong Language blog.)

The language section of the Production Code, showing changes over time. The Code was eventually replaced by the ratings system.

The limitations sometimes led to tortured workarounds, as when a character in Ride the Pink Horse (1947) says another character is “all cussed up” because he “fought a war for three years.” (For “cussed,” substitute your favorite profanity.) But clever screenwriters still found ways to put streetwise dialogue in the mouths of the thieves, murderers, adulterers, nightclub singers, washed-up boxers, and corrupt politicians who populated their scripts. Here is some the lingo you may encounter on your passage through the twisting byways of noir films:

Cannon. A pickpocket skillful enough to work solo, also known as a gun; both words — probably derived from “hired gunman” — had been part of American underworld slang since the early 1900s. Film noir’s most famous cannon is Skip McCoy, played by Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street (1953).

Chump. A dope, a sucker, a person who’s easily tricked. It’s had that sense since the 1880s; before then, it meant “a block of wood,” possibly from a blend of chunk and lump.

Dame. Film scripts couldn’t use the common slang terms for “woman,” including “broad,” which had been part of New Yorkese since at least 1911. So you’ll hear dame a lot in film noir dialogue. As a disparaging synonym for “woman,” dame has a long history going back to the early 18th century.

Fall guy. “You want the falcon, I’ve got it. The fall guy’s part of the price,” Humphrey Bogart tells “the Fat Man,” Sidney Greenstreet, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), considered an early example of film noir. “To take the fall” is to accept blame or punishment, to be a scapegoat; “fall guy” has been documented in print since 1895.

Fall Guy, a 1947 American film noir centering on a dead blonde and a blacked-out drunk.

Four-flusher. A cheat, a dishonest person. The slang term refers to a poker player who claims a flush while holding only four cards in the suit. The noun first surfaced around 1900, to four-flush is a few years older.

Gumshoe. Shoes or boots with gum-rubber soles had been around since the mid-19th century. Because gumshoes allow the wearer to walk quietly (or stealthily), detectives became known as gumshoes. Another slang term for detective was dick (or private dick); it probably was “a playful or arbitrary shortening of detective,” according to the OED.

Gunsel. Bogart’s Sam Spade uses gunsel three times in reference to Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), the Fat Man’s young associate. (Watch a scene.) Film censors okayed the word, thinking it meant “gunman.” It didn’t: In Yiddish slang, a gunsel — literally “a little goose” — is a young man kept for sexual purposes by an older man.

Hard-boiled. “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you — you’re twenty minutes,” Jan Sterling — no softy herself--tells Kirk Douglas in the deeply cynical Ace in the Hole (1951). As a colloquial synonym for “tough” or “ruthless,” it dates from the 1880s. In his 1949 novel The Little Sister, adapted for the 1969 neo-noir film Marlowe, Raymond Chandler wrote of “the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city.”

Mouthpiece. A lawyer, especially a criminal defense attorney. Although it sounds like a term born in the era of radio and sound recording, its slang use has been documented since the late 1850s.

Patsy. Yet another word for a person who’s easily taken advantage of or duped. Its slang use has been documented since the 1880s, but its origin is uncertain. The OED suggests it may derive from a proper name (probably “Patrick”)  or nickname.

Shamus. By the 1940s it rhymed with “famous” and was another slang term for private detective (or, occasionally, a police officer). Eric Partridge, author of an influential slang dictionary published in 1937, hypothesized that because many American policemen had Irish roots, the word came from the Irish given name Seamus. But an earlier pronunciation and spelling — shommus — betray the word’s Yiddish roots. The original shamus (rhymes with “promise”) comes from a Hebrew word meaning servant or caretaker.

Stool pigeon. A police informer. A stool pigeon was originally (1812) a decoy pigeon fastened to a stool to lure other pigeons; it acquired its criminal meaning in the mid-19th century.

Want to dig deeper into the shady world of noir? School yourself with “Noir 101” from Eddie Muller, “the czar of noir,” who hosts a weekly film noir screening on the cable channel TCM. And fill your Noirvember nights with films from Muller’s Top 25 noir list.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.