English language Uncategorized

One whiff, and a bust!

Q: Can you help me find references about historical slang? I’m working on a book set in 1932 and need to know when words and phrases came into use. I’m thinking specifically about “bust,” meaning a police raid, and “pissed off” for angry. Is there a book or website with this kind of information?

A: I’ll begin with the two terms you’re interested in.

The use of “bust” for a police raid first appeared in print in 1938. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New Yorker: “One whiff,” said Chappy, “and we get a bust.” (The “whiff,” of course, is of marijuana.)

The first citation for “pissed off” comes from Artist at War (1943), a book by George Biddle, a painter who worked for the War Department during the Second World War: “When I’m pissed off, I always get that starry look.”

Both “bust” and “pissed off” were probably in use for quite a few years before they appeared in print, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to put them in the mouths of characters living in 1932.

Now, on to those references. The best source for US slang is the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, by Jonathan E. Lighter. Unfortunately, only the first two volumes ( A-G and H-O) have been published so far.

Two other helpful reference books are Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green, and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor. If you find the Partridge too expensive, there’s a cheaper concise version.

You might also check out Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is available online at

The OED, the granddaddy of all language references, is also available online – for a price. Here’s how to subscribe.

There are several online slang dictionaries, but they generally don’t give dates for when the words and phrases first showed up. You might, however, find the Online Etymology Dictionary helpful.

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