As David Mulkins demonstrated at this week’s Tenement Talks, the Bowery is singlehandedly responsible for some of the most significant contributions to American culture in the last two hundred years. Notable examples include Yiddish Theater, Vaudeville, tap dancing, minstrel shows, and punk rock.
However, there is one oft-overlooked, yet no less important contribution that still resonates today – the Bowery slang popularized by the Bowery Boys of yesteryear. These now-iconic street thugs used phrases and terms that never quite faded from our collective lexicon. It’s an exciting prospect to know that, in some ways, we still speak as they did. Just remember, the next time you rattle off the following expressions, some nineteenth-century punk probably uttered the same:
- Kick the Bucket
- Going on a bender
- So long
Walt Whitman was enamored with the Bowery slang, and even used key terms in his poetry. Many consider him to be the “Bowery B’hoy of literature.” B’hoy, which plays on the Irish pronunciation, was slang for working class boy.
And lest we forget Great Jones Street and its contribution to colloquial speech – Jonesin’ for something. What do you think the Bowery slang is today? Does it even exist?
Many thanks to David Mulkins for steering us to the Burrows/Wallace text, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, which features a brief section about Bowery slang.