OLD NEWS: Two great slang slingers left us with lots to say (2022)

OLD NEWS: Two great slang slingers left us with lots to say (1)Indoor Sports by Tad was a popular cartoon strip by syndicated artist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (1877-1929). This installment appeared in the Arkansas Gazette on Aug. 6, 1919. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The high cost of living was no joke in summer 1919. But that didn't stop people from joking.

A great source of merriment was the War Department's decision to ease the national food shortage by selling 341 million pounds of surplus Army foodstuff at post offices. The 'stuff would be mostly canned vegetables and meat.

"The army chow may solve the food problem, but we know of 4,000,000 birds who have had enough of it," syndicated sports humorist Arthur "Bugs" Baer quipped in his Putting 'em Over column published in the Arkansas Gazette that long-ago Aug. 9.

The first bunch of military biscuits is on the fire now. There are about 400 carloads:

40 carloads baked beans.

10 carloads army beans.

10 carloads navy beans.

20 carloads lima beans.

10 carloads string beans.

10 carloads canned beans.

100 carloads dried beans.

50 carloads wax beans.

100 carloads Mex hopping beans.

20 carloads Boston beans.

10 carloads bean bag beans.

20 carloads beanless beans.

Baer also informed readers that "slumgullion is also good chow. Slumgullion is the same as hash, except for the extra 2½ syllables. Hash would be [a] much shorter and convenient name for it, but nothing is popular in the army that cuts down paper work."

But was it hash? Baer's next paragraph relayed, "On holidays the government will dish out rice pudding, which is the Sunday name for slumgullion."

His tone implied a personal grievance, and he had, in fact, graduated from Field Artillery Officers' Training School at Camp Zachary Taylor in 1918. He contributed to a book about that camp that has been digitized.

Food really was in short supply. Baer waxed nostalgic:

Ten years ago you could grab a meal check for two smackers that was good for 20 meals. The check was good even if the meals weren't. Ten megs a nosebag. Now if a guy lamped a meal check he would butter it and eat it. All the saloons had free lunch counters where you could grab all you could eat and some things you couldn't. That was before they turned the lumber yards into breakfast food factories.

Horse lovers know about "nosebags," and "smackers" still suggest dollars, so we don't need to look them up in Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. But Partridge explains "meg" as a crime-world word for nickel. As a verb, it meant "to swindle." And "to lamp" was to see.

According to his obit in The New York Times (May 18, 1969), Baer was hired as a sportswriter by publisher William Randolph Hearst based upon Baer's quip about an incompetent base-stealer named Ping Bodie: "His head was full of larceny, but his feet were honest."

Baer nicknamed Babe Ruth the "Sultan of Swat." In 1933, H.L. Mencken wrote that W.J. Funk, of the Funk and Wagnall's dictionary company, considered Baer one of the "most fecund makers of American slang."

Funk made a list.


Also on Funk's list, Mencken said, was the great slang-slinger Tad Dorgan, whose four-column, single-panel cartoon Indoor Sports appeared on Gazette sports pages from 1914 to 1929.

"Indoor sports" was slang for gambling, and many of Dorgan's characters played cards or idled beside a caged betting window. People-watching is an indoor sport, too. Dorgan often drew the bullpen of sportswriters at the New York Journal. His strip also ventured into restaurants, homes, theaters, shops ... which is remarkable given that he was mostly house-bound for the last eight years of his life.

Westbrook Pegler wrote an obituary of Dorgan for the Washington Post that's quoted in the Stripper's Guide blog. He describes meeting the slender eavesdropper at the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago:

There was a tall, gawky fellow with a conspicuous nose hanging around the Hearst section of the press section and every now and again he would up with a little pad of paper palmed in his right hand and scribble something on it with his left. I thought he was merely taking notes, but presently I glimpsed the pad and saw that he was drawing a picture of old Elihu Root, with the unmistakable bartender's bangs down over the forehead, the motheaten moustache and the collar-button wart on the nose without which no caricature of Mr. Root was legal in those days. At the bottom of the sketch was the name, Tad.

Dorgan drew with his left hand, having lost two fingers and half the palm of his right hand at 13 in a factory machine. His dialogue balloons are hastily inked and can be hard to decipher. Once you dope them out, his observations of everyday hypocrisy can leave you feeling just a little bit guilty. He lovingly depicts a world where wiseacres and moochers take advantage of self-absorbed gulls, pretentious dandies and dithering dames.

Dorgan is credited with creating or popularizing a heap of slang, including "bunk" and "the bull" for hooey, "dumbbell" and "dumb Dora" for stupid people, "fathead" for a pretentious intellect, "crape hanger" for a gloomy Gus, "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas" for excellence, "cheaters" for reading glasses, "dogs" for shoes, "nickle nurser" for a cheapskate, "skimmer" for a hat, "hard-boiled egg" for a determined character, "drugstore cowboy" for an idle hanger-about.

Co-workers were "jobbies." Another of his pet phrases we don't use today is "the north and south," as in "giving it the north and south," meaning to look something up and down.

He invented phrases we still use, such as "busier than a one-armed paperhanger" (with the hives), "for crying out loud" and "Yes, we have no bananas," which became a pop song. Every so often one of his characters will make a statement and then negate it using "— not —." For instance, in a 1915 panel in which a family of penny-pinching bargain hunters enters a clothing shop, a salesman remarks, "Get the map on the old lady — I'll bet she's loose as ashes with money — not — She can see a dime further than you can see a flatiron."

One character is so unlucky "if he fell off a 15 story building he'd just miss a fat man." A hick: "The roof of his mouth is sunburned from looking at the tall buildings." A braggart: "If he was a salesman he'd be selling flannel shirts at the equator." A fool: "Nobody home but the beer and that's lost its head."

Thomas Aloysius Dorgan was one of 11 children. He had two brothers who also were published cartoonists and writers, Joe and Dick Dorgan. His brother Ike managed publicity for Madison Square Garden.

The year after his accident, 14-year-old Tad was hired as an artist by the San Francisco Bulletin. In 1902, the San Francisco Chronicle published his first weekly comic, Johnny Wise, and later that year he was hired away by the New York Journal as a sports cartoonist and writer. An animation of his column Daffydils is on Youtube.

He worked from home after having a heart attack at a Jack Dempsey boxing match. But he remained so well-known that he had an endorsement deal for a brand of tobacco. After he died, W.B. Worthen Co., Bankers, traded on his fame with an ad campaign noting that he had been wise enough to name a banking institution as his co-executor and so you should, too.

Dorgan died at home in his sleep May 2, 1929. He was 52.



Style on 08/12/2019

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