In 1931, the Los Angeles Times published a story headlined Underworld lingo. It was a lexicon of criminal cant and jargon written by Ben Kendall, a police reporter.
Kendall formerly was a police reporter in Chicago, too, where he uncovered bribes and corruption by making friends with pickpockets, safeblowers, and shoplifters. Some eight years later, Kendall would be indicted and convicted for his role in bribery related to illegal gambling in Los Angeles.
So, given his experience on both sides of the law, one can only assume that the lingo he recorded was genuine. But how much of it lasted? Seventy-eight years on, we find that some of the lingo is still in use, while some of it has vanished.
Alky is recorded by Kendall as “straight alcohol.” Most people today would use it to mean an acoholic drinker rather than the drink itself.
Angle he records as “a plan; a lead,” which is more or less how it’s used today. If someone says, “I don’t know what his angle is, but he’s up to no good,” they’d mean that the fellow seemed to be planning something suspicious.
Booster does indeed still mean a shoplifter. Boost in general means “to steal” and a booster bag is a specially designed bag that is meant to conceal stolen merchandise as it is taken out of a store.
Chiv is common still in prison lingo, though it’s usually spelled shiv. An even older form is chive, meaning a knife as far back as the 17th century. A shiv is a knife, too, but in prison slang it is especially a crude, improvised one, such as a toothbrush that has had a razor blade attached to it.
Grand still means a thousand dollars. Take still means “a share,” too, but it’s a fairly straight business term: “What’s my take on all this? If he gets 15% of the ticket money, I want 15%, too.” A pay-off is still a bribe or a payment made to someone to keep them from hurting you or your things.
Haywire, Kendall writes, is a “mental aberration.” Today we’d say that a machine went haywire more often than we would say a person went haywire. We mean the machine started malfunctioning.
Jam still means trouble or a sticky situation. “Can you help me out with the rent this month? I’m in a jam until payday.” Or, “I’m in a jam with the wife. She doesn’t know I was at the bar last night. Tell her I was at your house.”