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[The Rustbelt] Slang collection project

Started by Marshall Burns, March 27, 2009, 06:07:48 PM

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Marshall Burns

I'm collecting slang terms for an appendix for my game The Rustbelt.  I'm looking for slang that is colorful, rough, earthy, gritty.  Probable good sources include early 20th century hipster slang, sailor slang, army slang, cop slang, criminal and underground argot, etc.  If you know any good ones, post 'em.  Here's what I've got so far:

Beater:  a car in really bad shape
Bilk: to cheat
Black Maria(h): a police wagon
Bone orchard: a cemetery
Bulldoze:  to threaten, bully, coerce
Bunko artist: a con-man
Burned down:  played out, run into the ground, used until useless
C, Charge, or Charly: cocaine
Cool: the opposite of Hot (below)
the Chucks: the munchies
Croaker: a doctor, esp. one that will write prescriptions for illicit drugs
Go left: to go suddenly crazy, or to fly into a sudden rage
Gospel mill: a church
H, Horse, or Henry: heroin
the Heat: the police
Heater, Gat, Rod, or Piece:  a gun
Heeled: carrying a gun
Hot or Uncool: describes a person, thing, or activity that is likely to attract the attention of the police, or a place that is frequented by the police
Hot shot:  poison (usually strychnine) passed off as drugs (esp. junk) to a user, in an attempt to kill him
Joy bang:  an occasional use of a drug by someone who does not have a habit (or claims they don't)
Junk: any drug derived from opium
Light a shuck: to get the hell out of here
Make: to recognize someone and/or their intentions; as in, "Shit, they've made us; run!"
Mark: a target or victim, esp. for a con
Mud: opium
Oil burner: describes a habit (esp. a drug habit) that requires a lot to satisfy, constantly; from "oil burner" as applied to a car that leaks oil such that it burns off, and you have to replace it a lot
Packed: carrying a weapon
Put down a routine or hype or con:  to persuade someone through a story, esp. a mendacious one
Rumble or Shake or Shake-down: search & seizure, esp. by the police
Shove the queer: to pass counterfeit money
the Simon pure:  the real thing, the genuine article
Smash: spare money or change
Speedball:  a mixture of cocaine and junk, taken intravenously
Spike:  a hypodermic needle
Tea, Gage, or Greefa: marijuana
Touch: the act of asking someone for money; as in, "Joe, is this a touch?" or "He touched me for ten dollars"
Walking Spanish: being made to walk somewhere you don't want to go, as at gunpoint
Wooden overcoat or coat or kimono: a coffin
Working the hole:  robbing passed-out drunks
Wrong:  describes someone who is a known collaborator with the cops, as in "he's wrong" or "he went wrong"
Yen or Jones:  an intense desire, esp. for sex or drugs; also a verb:  yenning, jonesing

Eero Tuovinen

I clicked on this thread with the idea that I'd contribute some wacky words for your project, but the long list sort of killed it for me. Have you considered doing a commented essay rather than a simple list as your appendix? I'd be much more interested in 20 terms explained than 100 terms as a simple list of definitions. There are two reasons: one is that fictional slang systems actually get by with a surprisingly few turns of phrase, so it's overkill to try to give every little thing in the world a new and strange name that'd go unused anyway. The second reason is that words reflect and shape society: I don't want to know that characters in your setting call cemeteries bone orchards unless there's a specific reason for it; if the only reason is that they're modeling themselves on some past subculture, then say that, give 2-3 example terms and instruct the reader to look for more online.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Marshall Burns

Man, that's a great idea. I just wish I knew how to do it.

Eero Tuovinen

Well, I imagine you'd start by looking at some art in which imaginary slang is used to your liking, and go from there. For example, do you like how Planescape is written? There's practically just a dozen slang terms in something like that, but they are common words, so they repeat a lot and create a specific feel to it. (In fact Planescape has something like 50, but most are not used too much; you can get by with half a dozen.) Analyze what makes functional slang use in art work for you and plan your slang environment on that basis. Remember that the players won't be reading through that huge-ass list anyway, so you're not doing anybody any favours that way: you'll want to instead give them manageable principles and design the slang so that a little goes far. The way I imagine slang as a roleplaying tool, you'll write your game text with the slang to give a feel for it, then include a couple of pages that explain how the players can approximate the appropriate slang without having to reference a dictionary constantly.

After you have your half dozen words, phrases or mannerisms, list them and tell the reader why you chose them and what they express about the setting; are these things somehow different from how they are in our world, so that the people have started using a new word? Have cultures gotten mixed up so that English has picked up a foreign flavour? Are the people too busy to speak properly, or has the constant background noise affected the way their language lilts? Use your half dozen example words to give the reader the tools to device their own slang: that Planescape styling stuff is completely extraneous to actual play and only useful for writing Planescape fiction; the writer could have just straight up told us that Planescape people use Victorian London slang, and that's that.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Lance D. Allen

That's a good thought. Shadowrun never had a glossary for its various slang terms, it just used them. You learned pretty quickly reading the books what each term meant. They definitely gave you an idea of what your average person (or at least what your average Shadowrunner, if there is such a thing) would talk like.

I sometimes find myself slipping back into the terminology when I think about Shadowrun.

On the other hand, I may have also been one of the very few who thought the glossary in the White Wolf books were cool. I made a point to use the terms when I could. A lot of the time, the terms were necessary to refer to specific concepts in the WoD universe, so it was easy. Other terms, especially the vulgar argot and old form words, were harder to remember to work into conversations.

The real problem, I think, is how to communicate the feeling of the terminology to those who don't read the book. There will always, always be those who just want to sit down and play without having to read the books beforehand.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Marshall Burns

I think my main influence in this is the work of William S. Burroughs. Particularly Junky -- I mean, he's always big on the slang thing, but it's part of the central effect of Junky, and more focused because he played Junky straight. It doesn't feature any of the crazy experimental stuff of his later work (and is hugely underrated because of that; it's easily one of his three best books).

See, Junky presents some shady, underworldly stuff, but it does it very straight, and looking straight into your eye. It brings you in and makes you complicit, a co-conspirator -- for the reader, it's not just prurience and voyeurism into the life of an unredeemed drug addict, it's being right there with him and sharing a needle. And the way that it uses slang is part of this effect.

But, then, it has a glossary. Would it have the same effect without the glossary? I don't have any way of knowing, because I can't unread what I've read.

But my point is, that's where I'm coming from. Rustbelt needs slang as part of its goal to bring players into the world and make them share their characters' space, so that we're looking at real identification and connection rather than tourism of the pain and hardship and desperation.  Does that make any sense?

Eero Tuovinen

I suppose it does.

How about this: choose one slang term that you think is really important to the setting. Explain it in the early parts of the game text, use it throughout. Tell the players to make sure to work it into the game. Heck, give some bonus for the first use or something. Help them make this one weird word or turn of phrase a distinguished part of their game lingo. Sort of like some games call the GM with funny alternate names, except directed at the fiction instead of procedures. Then see if you're happy with just one word or if you should have half a dozen scattered here and there in the game text.

(I'm judging the Lil'Game Chef competition games just now, and one of those games insists that heroin is called Horse in that game, and nothing else - other words are not allowed. I found this pretty amusing, even if it was just to emphasize the mandatory ingredient. I could easily imagine a similar exhortation in your game.)

I'd feel that something like this would go much farther in actually making the slang a functional part of play. I know that I myself would glance at a list of slang words, but I wouldn't use them in the game if the text didn't make it a big deal and explain why this word is important to the game. Even with the above technique I might not (and I shouldn't) stress about it too much, but if I liked the game and settled down to play more than one session, I'd be sure to read the book and integrate those selected, heavy words into my play over time.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Marshall,

Presentation methods aside, here are some more terms that I for one would anticipate when I play The Rustbelt again.

Bughouse: (adj.) crazy, (n.) asylum
Horse, H: heroin
Juice: alcoholic drink, Juicer: alcholic person, heavy drinker
Headlights, hooters: breasts
Inside / Outside: in prison / out of prison
Johnson: penis
The Life: prostitution
Looker: attractive woman
Poon tang: vagina/sex (extremely crude)
Working girl: prostitute

Best, Ron


I was kind of amused to find that amongst all that down-and-dirty, street and criminal subculture slang on the initial list, the first one -- "beater" for "car in really bad shape" -- is absolutely ordinary working-class-to-middle-class slang in West Michigan, nothing shady about it.

Here's your story, Eero, since you wanted stories for slang:  Because of the heavy lake-effect snow and the copious amounts of salt used to clear the streets, cars used in Michigan in winter rust out ridiculously fast, especially so a decade or two ago when much less plastic was used in cars than is nowadays.

So anybody who could afford it would have a regular car and a "winter beater," a car so cheap, old and nasty that the additional damage from the salt spray from the roads wouldn't even be noticeable.

I think cars today are less rustable, and people are less able to afford an extra car, so the "winter beater" phenomenon may already be a historical relic.

I imagine the same story holds in any Midwestern area with heavy snow and street salt, not just West Michigan....

Apologies for this tangentially topical digression, but at least it was about rust and a dying Midwestern industry....