Q: In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s characters use “polony” and “buer” for a woman of loose morals, but I can’t find the terms in dictionaries. I know that if I use them in Scrabble I will get challenged!
A: You can find both words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “buer” as a woman, especially “one of loose character,” and “polony” (a variant spelling of “palone”) as “a young woman” or “an effeminate man.”
The OED has a citation from Brighton Rock (1938) that includes both of the words: “ ‘What about that polony he was with?’ ‘She doesn’t matter,’ the Boy said. ‘She’s just a buer.’ ”
The earliest Oxford example for “palone” (also spelled “paloni,” “pollone,” and “polone”) is from Cheapjack, a 1934 memoir by Philip Allingham, the brother of the mystery writer Margery Allingham:
“I’d rather ’andle a man any day than a lot of these silly palones.”
The dictionary describes “palone” as “slang (derogatory),” and most of the citations use the the term along the lines of such slang words as “broad,” “chick,” “doll,” and “dame.”
The OED says “palone” is of uncertain origin, but may be a variant of “blowen,” slang for a wench.
Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, cites theories that the term may have come from Italian words for a chick or a straw mattress.
As for “buer,” the OED describes the term (also spelled “bure,” “buor,” and “bewer”) as “north. dial. and Tramps’ slang” of unknown origin.
Green’s Dictionary suggests that “buer” might have originated as a word for “tramp” in Shelta, a language spoken by Irish Travellers (itinerants in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere).
The OED’s first citation for “buer” is from an 1807 poem by John Stagg: “A bure her neame was Meg, / A winsome weel far’ word body.”
We should mention here that “polony” has another meaning. In the UK, it may refer to a “Bologna sausage,” which Americans usually call “bologna” or “baloney.”
Oxford says “polony” in the sausage sense is “probably an alteration of Bologna.” John Camden Hotten, in The Slang Dictionary (1913), explains that it’s a Cockney version of “Bologna.”
The earliest citation in the OED for “polony” used in this sense is from a 1654 issue of a smutty journal, Mercurius Fumigosus:
“A Lady of Pleasure voiding a Worm in the Coach-box, bigger then a Polony Sassage.” (The term “Worm” here refers to a dildo.)
In researching your question, we came across a Brighton Rock glossary on the collaborative website Book Drum. However, the definitions for “buer” and “polony” differ somewhat from ours, and we can’t vouch for the rest of the entries.