How To Bump Gums Like a Hardboiled Dick: The Language of Film Noir

The art of film holds endless fascination. It is trite but true to note that men and women love the movies because, for a brief time, they get to experience the larger-than-life existence of the hero or the heroine on screen as if it were their own.

The feelings of the cinema-goer are merely vicarious but the glimpse they give us into other worlds and lives can feel quite real. Maybe that's why it's so much fun to watch old movies---in which we Americans get to visit our own past---and foreign movies---in which we get to visit other countries and cultures.

Naturally, going abroad may be hampered by language barriers. Many of the greatest films of all time were made by Swedish, German, Italian, French, Japanese, and Bengali craftsmen. It would be foolish to deny oneself the sheer aesthetic pleasure of experiencing these masterworks. But it can also be challenging.

Believe it or not, it can be challenging just translating from English to English. You read that right. Much can be garbled in the journey through time and space, even if you're just traveling from Hollywood to Britain in the 1950s.

So, for something a bit lighter, we offer you the opportunity to gain the qualifications of an interdimensional cinephile. Do you have the vocabulary to travel both time and space?

First, check out our glossary of key terms and become fluent in Hollywood Film Noir and British crime slang. Once you're done, you've earned the right to check out our best-of lists for classic Hollywood films noirs; classic British crime, suspense, and mystery films; a few Hollywood-British co-productions; and, finally, some recent British TV cop shows.

Film Noir Glossary

In each instance, we've offered a film noir term and a concise definition—we've also provided the classic British crime slang in a few cases. Use these words in your everyday conversation to confuse friends and beguile neighbors.

Argy-Bargy/Rumpus:
A fight; a free-for-all; a brawl
Bangtails:
Racehorses, the hair on their tails was often cut square, or "banged"
Barmy/Batty:
Nuts; crazy; insane; off one's rocker
Bean-shooter/Gat/Heat/Rod:
A gun, also heater
Behind the eight-ball:
In a difficult position, in a tight spot (possibly derived from Kelly pool, an earlier version of pocket billiards with 16 balls)
Big House/Calaboose/Hoosegow/Stir:
jail, prison, slammer
Bird/Skirt:
A dame; a broad; a sort-of-chauvinistic term for a woman
Bit:
Prison sentence, also 12½ cents (used in multiples of 2, equalling 25 cents)
Blower/Horn:
Telephone
Bracelets:
Handcuffs
Bulls:
Plainclothes railroad cops; uniformed police; prison guards
Bump gums:
To talk about nothing worthwhile or excessively, to argue
Button man:
Professional killer, member of the Mafia
Canary:
Woman singer or band vocalist, also to turn state's evidence
Chicago overcoat:
Coffin; implies murder, from the practice of sealing a corpse in cement for disposal in deep water
Chin:
Conversation; chinning: talking.
Clammed:
Close-mouthed (clammed up), silent, discreet
Clipped:
Shot
Copper:
Policeman (New York city's first police seargants carried copper badges)
Dick/Peeper/Sleuth/Snooper:
Detective, usually qualified with “private” if not a policeman. A "house dick" or "house peeper" would be a hotel security officer. Also, gumshoe (so-named for wearing silent shoes with soles of gum-rubber rather than leather). Also, shamus: a private detective, probabyl from Yiddish.
Dingus:
A thing or a gadget
Dizzy:
Scatterbrained, stupid. "Dizzy with a dame" is to be so deeply in love as to be scatterbrained. A "dizzy dame" is a scatterbrained woman.
Doxy/Chippy:
A floozy; a loose woman; a kept woman; a prostitute or semi-prostitute
Fade:
Go away, sneak away, get lost
Finger, Put the finger on:
To point someone out, to dentify criminals for police
Flivver:
An old car, once a nickname for the Model-T Ford
Glom/Nick/Pinch:
To steal, or to arrest
Gob/Yap:
Pie hole; mouth
Grass/Drop a dime:
Rat out; fink; give information to the police (drop a dime originates from pay phones, which required a dime to place a call)
Grift:
Confidence game, swindle
Hop it/Blow:
Leave hurriedly; leave under duress; (if an expression from another movie genre may be allowed) get the hell out of Dodge
Juice/Vig/Vigorish:
Interest on a loanshark's loan
Knackered/Beat:
Exhausted
Moll:
Girlfriend
Patsy:
Person who is set up, victim of a confidence game; fool, chump, dupe
Rube:
Bumpkin, easy mark
Scarper/Take a powder:
To hop it or blow by surreptitious means; to sneak away in cowardly fashion; slink away; (the etymology of the phrase “take a powder” is disputed, but seems to have to do either with needing to leave the room immediately or with disappearing altogether, upon taking a laxative or a magical powder)
Shylock:
Loanshark
Shyster:
Lawyer
Skint/On the nut:
Stone-cold broke, without enough money to cover expenses (one's "nut")
Sort out/Settle ________ hash:
To “fix” someone; to come to terms with someone; usually means to beat up or kill someone, as in retaliation for a bad debt; (the term “sort out” is used very much more widely than this in the U.K. today, but in classic British crime/suspense/mystery films it used to have this narrower connotation)
Tiger milk:
Some sort of liquor
Tosh/Bunk:
Arrant nonsense; B.S.
Wanker/Pissant:
A poor specimen of humanity; a pitiful, disgusting, good-for-nothing fellow; (“wanker,” which literally means “masturbator,” is not used in classic British films, but is used as every-other-word in many contemporary British TV cop shows; we suspect it was being said back then, too, they just weren't allowed to say it onscreen)
Weak sister:
A push-over
Whinge/Kick:
Whine; complain; bemoan one's fate in cowardly and irritating fashion

For an even more comprehensive list of beguiling film noir lingo, we recommend visiting Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang from Miskatonic University Press.

Our Best-of Recommendations

Now that you know the vocabulary, you're ready to watch. Here's your starting point. Happy viewing!

The 20 Best Classic Hollywood Films Noirs

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder; 1944)
https://youtu.be/S3wjJcuGsVE
Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock; 1951)
https://youtu.be/J1iSS5r0OVE
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston; 1941)
https://youtu.be/3a9YU1SVbSE
The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston; 1950)
https://youtu.be/IXrP6Uo4nUI
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock; 1943)
https://youtu.be/jQ83eNpGaKQ
Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur; 1947)
https://youtu.be/saurMhQHblc
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray; 1951)
https://youtu.be/Ry04YYpQnJQ
Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger; 1950)
https://youtu.be/kA4mk1ecGs8
The Big Heat (Fritz Lang; 1953)
https://youtu.be/dLLAspkOv3w
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray; 1950)
https://youtu.be/Cq9VYIrFy3M
Laura (Otto Preminger; 1944)
https://youtu.be/QJRp5C15PgE
Angel Face (Otto Preminger; 1953)
https://youtu.be/rBo5WvyBBl4
Impact (Arthur Lubin; 1949)
https://youtu.be/saH4_fb6dnI
Pushover (Richard Quine; 1954)
https://youtu.be/mYUO8T8oQrs
Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller; 1953)
https://youtu.be/SMlxay__jFU
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur; 1957)
https://youtu.be/mhMJG7qmJkE
Where Danger Lives (John Farrow; 1950)
https://youtu.be/xf-t5bLxSqk
Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin; 1949)
https://youtu.be/tdJGIP4zs-0
Side Street (Anthony Mann; 1950)
https://youtu.be/zR7gRki-XKM
The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer; 1952)
https://youtu.be/OZtFTnm8GnY

The 15 Best Classic British Crime-Suspense-Mystery Films

Odd Man Out (Carol Reed; 1947)
https://youtu.be/SqctI12CBzo
The Third Man (Carol Reed; 1949)
https://youtu.be/2wlKhPtq5J8
The Quare Fellow (Arthur Dreifuss; 1962)
https://youtu.be/O8cZXMwmPLE
The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden; 1960)
https://youtu.be/E3TQC3YCBC4
Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson; 1940)
https://youtu.be/x12CXPBOHKc
The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed; 1948)
https://youtu.be/S55LGwqRKLg
Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed; 1940)
https://youtu.be/wKt_Wosq7CU
Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock; 1936)
https://youtu.be/178s548EjM4
The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith; 1950) [full movie - we could not find a clip or trailer]
https://youtu.be/fiByw716TGs
Brighton Rock (John Boulting; 1947)
https://youtu.be/k058_TkGoOs
Night and the City (Jules Dassin; 1950)
https://youtu.be/zC6V_UZmB48
The October Man (Roy Wood Baker; 1947) (*spoiler alert!)
https://youtu.be/N12IHoSo_tw
Waterloo Road (Sidney Gilliat; 1945)
https://youtu.be/-H7QcdRGHOk
They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti; 1947)
https://youtu.be/FX3hUZW84SM
Obsession (Edward Dmytryk; 1949) [full movie - we could not find a clip]
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsG3AmiVoHo

Five Hollywood/British Co-Productions Not to Be Missed

Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco; 1946)
https://youtu.be/3BuqsdPiwmU
The Lodger (John Brahm; 1944)
https://youtu.be/7DwVh7uiRAw
Hangover Square (John Brahm; 1945)
https://youtu.be/tdrry28mcW8
The Mask of Demetrios (John Negulesco; 1944)
https://youtu.be/L9w-Jrc79ic
The Conspirators (John Negulesco; 1944)
https://youtu.be/ks-IwuxFAwU
Note: These films are Hollywood productions with British creative participation and set wholly or partly in England. They have a British flavor, but mostly avoid British slang.

Best Recent British TV Cop Shows

Prime Suspect (Lynda LaPlante; 1991--1996; 2003, 2006)

Cracker (Jimmy McGovern; 1993--1995, 1996, 2006)

Accused (Jimmy McGovern; 2010--2012)

Broadchurch (Chris Chibnall; 2013--)

Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright; 2014--2016)

Note: These shows are great for catching up on more-recent and grittier British slang. We admit that one or two terms from these newer shows leaked onto the main list, but we have mostly avoided the much harsher language (e.g., the ubiquitous “bollocks”) that is now regularly heard in British film and TV fare, for the simple reason that it has no counterpart in classic Hollywood film noir. Back then, it would have been unthinkable to hear correspondingly vulgar terms uttered on screen.