Boardwalk Empire: Our Favorite Words from the Final Season


Our favorite Prohibition era gangster show has ended, and what better way to pay homage than with a last round-up of our favorite words?

While you’re at it, check out our Boardwalk Empire glossary from last year.

agony aunt

Psychiatric patient [to Gillian]: “I do love a bit of the agony aunt, don’t you?”

“The Good Listener,” September 14, 2014

Agony aunt is such a great term — too bad it’s from the 1970s. While advice columns have been around since at least 1690, this particular phrase referring to a presumably female newspaper advice columnist wasn’t coined until 1972, according to Oxford English Dictionary (OED). This episode takes place in 1931.

Agony uncle, a male advice columnist, was coined in 1981.

Big Boy

Eli: “We came to rob the joint? . . .We knew the Big Boy would be out.”

“Devil You Know,” October 12, 2014

Big Boy was just one of many nicknames of gangster Al Capone. Among others were the Beast, the Behemoth, Big Al, the Big Fellow, the Big Guy, Al Brown, Tony Scarface, and Snorky.

This Vanity Fair article from 1931 also refers to Capone as Big Boy:

[Capone] is acknowledged to be an enlightened employer. His are the happiest, best-fed and most contented machinegun-chuggers in Chicago. . . .The Big Boy pays them well and does everything to make them comfortable.

Where this nickname comes from is unclear.


Charlie Luciano: “I told you to be careful.”
Bugsy Siegel: “I got a bullet in my leg. You gonna hock me now?”

“Friendless Child,” October 19, 2014

Hock is a Yiddish word meaning to bother, pester, or annoy incessantly. It comes from the expression hak mir nisht ken tshaynik, or “don’t hock a teakettle at me.”

A variant seems to be hack, says the OED, meaning “to embarrass, annoy; to disconcert, confuse.”

UPDATE: Wordsmith Nancy Friedman, aka Fritinancy, just let us know that hock actually translates from Yiddish as “hit” or “knock,” and the Yiddish expression above means “don’t hit a teakettle,” or make noise. The figurative meaning seems to be to bother or annoy. Thanks, Nancy!

Jersey devil

Nucky: “Next time it’ll be the Jersey devil.”
Sheriff: “She is the Jersey devil.”

“King of Norway,” October 5, 2014

While we couldn’t find a first citation for this creepy creature of the Pine Barrens, the name seems to have originated in the early 18th century — not, however, as “a monster of the woods,” says historian Brian Regal, “but of politics.”

Originally known as the Leeds Devil, the cloven-hoofed one was named for the family Leeds, whose patriarch, Daniel, arrived in America in 1677. Daniel was dubbed “evil” and “Satan’s Harbinger” by Quakers offended by the inclusion of astrology in an almanac Leeds published in 1687 and for satirizing them in later books.

In the mid-18th century, the Leeds were targeted for having “sided with the empire” (Daniel had been a fan of Lord Cornbury, the first royal governor of New Jersey) and for “somehow being in the occult,” says Regal. By the time Revolutionary War rolled around, “the ‘Leeds Devil’ stood as a symbol of political ridicule and scorn.”

In the early 1900s, the Philadelphia Dime Museum claimed to have the legendary monster on display (in reality, a kangaroo with wings attached).

Somewhere along the way, the Leeds Devil became the Jersey devil, although it’s not clear when. The earliest citation we could find was from 1910: “For fully a month the ‘Jersey Devil’ had the world agog, leaving fur, feathers, and footprints, sometimes, in half a dozen places at once.”

let go

Margaret: “Am I being let go?”

“Golden Days for Boys and Girls,” September 7, 2014

We were surprised to learn that to be let go, or fired, is not an anachronism. This euphemism dates back to 1817, says the Word Detective.

Liberty bond

Marie: “Liberty bonds! From the war! They’re nothing to you.”

“What Jesus Said,” September 21, 2014

Liberty bonds were war bonds sold in the U.S. “to support the allied cause in World War I.” The point of war bonds was not only to finance military operations but also to “remove money from circulation” and help control inflation.


Bugsy Siegel [moments before being knocked out]: “If any of you mamzers rats me out about being at that apartment, I’ll pop a slug so far up your ass, I swear to God your back teeth — ”

“Friendless Child,” October 19, 2014

Mamzer is a Yiddish term that literally means “bastard,” or a child born out of wedlock, incest, or parents of different faiths. More commonly it refers to any contemptible person.

posing for animal crackers

Bugsy Siegel [to prostitute]: “Posing for animal crackers?”

“The Good Listener,” September 14, 2014

While we couldn’t pinpoint an exact origin of this phrase meaning “standing around doing nothing” presumably like the animal-shaped cookies, we did find this citation from 1917: “Pee-wee, you look as if you were posing for animal crackers.”

public enemy number one

Announcer: “Chicago, the windy city, long home to colorful citizens but perhaps none so blustery as the man called public enemy number one.”

“Cuanto,” September 28, 2014

Al Capone was declared public enemy number one by the Chicago Crime Commission in 1930. The public enemies list was brought about by the Commission that same year.

The term public enemy is much older, originating around 1548, says the OED, and refers to “an enemy common to a number of nations, a general enemy,” or “a person considered as a threat to the community.”

wets and dries

Senator: “It doesn’t matter what the wets are saying — ”
Joe Kennedy: “It’s the wets and dries alike.”

“Eldorado,” October 26, 2014

The wets and dries refer to those who were against and for, respectively, Prohibition in the United States.

Since at least 1719, wet has meant an alcoholic drink, according to the OED, and came to mean “permitting the sale of alcohol” around the 1870s.

While dry referring to a prohibitionist originated in the 1880s, dry meaning someone “abstaining from drink, esp. after becoming a addicted,” originated later, around 1941.

The phrase wets and dries gained another meaning in the 1980s. Opponents of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party were deemed the wets, apparently coined by Thatcher herself, meaning “feeble, lacking hardness, or willing to compromise with Labour.”

Thatcher’s opponents began “referring to her supporters as the ‘dries,” those who were for “reducing public spending, cutting taxes, lowering interest rates, tightly controlling the money supply, and reducing the regulatory power of the state.”

[Image via Vibe]

Words of Boardwalk Empire

The season finale of Boardwalk Empire, one of our favorite shows, airs this Sunday, and we thought we’d honor it with, what else, our favorite words from the season.

Taking place in Prohibition Era Atlantic City, the show features 1920s slang, crime speak, and black Southern lingo that has migrated its way north. Have a drink (just make sure it’s not a Mickey Finn), get zozzled, and enjoy.


J. Edgar Hoover: “A nationwide network of organized criminals? Cyril Briggs, Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman. Anarchists. Political agitators. That’s where the Bureau needs to be putting it resources.”

“The North Star,” October 13

The word anarchist originated in the 1670s. It comes from the French anarchiste, which comes from the Greek anarkhia, “without rule.”

During the French Revolution, Robespierre used the term anarchiste to refer disparagingly to “those on the left whom he had used for his own ends during the French Revolution but was determined to get rid of.”

Cyril Briggs was a journalist who established the African Blood Brotherhood, “a radical U.S. black liberation organization,” which was often at odds with Marcus Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Emma Goldman was “was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing, and speeches.”


Oscar’s nephew [to Chalky]: “So you the biggity man?”

“Havre de Grace,” November 17

Biggity, meaning self-important or conceited, originated as 19th century U.S. Southern slang. The word is a play big and may be influenced by the word uppity.

boola boola

Willie Thompson: “Well, I’m away at college now.”
Mickey Doyle: “Boola boola.”
Clayton: “That’s Yale. We go to Temple.”
Mickey: “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”

“Acres of Diamonds,” September 22, 2013

Boola boola comes from the fight song of Yale University. The song was composed around 1900 and may come from an earlier song, “La Hoola Boola,” by Robert Allen “Bob” Cole and Billy Johnson, two “extremely popular African American singer-songwriters of the time.”

bunco artist

Nucky: “Meems told me there’s a skunk in my cellar.”
Eli: “The justice guy? He’s a bunco artist, start to finish.”

“Havre de Grace,” November 17

A bunco artist is a con artist. Bunco, a swindle or confidence trick, may be an alteration of the Spanish banca, “card game.”


Dean O’Banion: “Some cabbage coming your way. Wops over in Cicero.”

“Resignation,” September 15, 2013

Cabbage is U.S. slang for money, “especially in the form of bills.” This sense originated around 1903, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Lettuce as slang for money came about around the same time.


Ed: “Having a little chin-wag with William here.”

“The Old Ship of Zion,” October 27, 2013

Chin-wag means “light, informal conversation.” The term originated around 1879, says the OED. To chin also means “to make idle conversation; chatter” while tongue-wagging is another term for gossip.


Chalky [to Richard ripping a flag for a sling]: “Are you sure that’s copacetic?”

“White Horse Pike,” November 10

Copacetic means satisfactory or acceptable. The term may have originated in 1919 or possibly earlier in 19th century U.S. Southern black speech.

There are many possibilities for copacetic‘s language of origin, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, including Latin, Yiddish, Louisiana French (coupe-sétique), and Native American. However, “none is considered convincing by linguists.”


Dean O’Banion: “I’m selling hydrangeas, George, not the grippe.”

“Resignation,” September 15, 2013

The grippe is influenza or the flu. The word comes from the French gripper, “to seize.” The word influenza (of which flu is a shortening) comes from the Medieval Latin īnfluentia, “influence,” so called “from the belief that epidemics were due to the influence of the stars.”

in Dutch

Goon: “Does it get me out of Dutch?”

“Marriage and Hunting,” November 3, 2013

To be in Dutch means to be “in trouble or disfavor” with. The phrase originated around 1912, according to the OED, and may come from the old stereotype of the Dutch being “stolid, miserly, and bad-tempered,” says World Wide Words.

We first discussed the phrase in Dutch in our post on words from Breaking Bad.

Mickey Finn

Nucky: “Who slipped him the Mickey? . . . .The Mickey Finn, the knockout punch.”

“Erlkönig,” October 6, 2013

A Mickey or Mickey Finn is “an alcoholic beverage that is surreptitiously altered to induce diarrhea or stupefy, render unconscious, or otherwise incapacitate the person who drinks it.”

The term originated around 1915, says the OED, coming from the name ‘Mickey’ Finn, “a Chicago saloon-keeper of the late 19th and early 20th cent. who was alleged to have drugged and robbed his customers.”

From a December 1903 issue of the Chicago Daily News: “The complete defense advanced by ‘Mickey’ Finn, proprietor of the Lone Star the scene of blood-curdling crimes through the agency of drugged liquor.”


Dean O’Banion: “Your boy Al? He’s pixilated or something. He won’t listen to reason.”

“William Wilson,” October 20, 2013

Pixilated (not to be confused with pixelated) means “behaving as if mentally unbalanced; very eccentric.” The word originated around 1848, coming from the word pixie plus the suffix –lated (as in elated).

The origins of the word pixie are more obscure. It may come from the Swedish dialetical pyske, “small fairy,” or its ultimate source may be in Cornwall and “thus something Celtic.”

The word pixelated is, as expected, much newer, coming from pixel, which is perhaps a combination of picture and element. The word pixel originated in the mid-to-late 1960s.


Chalky: “I signed contract with that man. He connected in New York. And I worked on him so that club can turn some scratch.”

“New York Sour,” September 8, 2013

Scratch is slang for money. The origin for this is unknown: neither the Online Etymology Dictionary nor the OED have any theories. Daily Writing Tips guesses it could be from the idea of “one has to struggle as if scratching the ground to obtain” money.


Clayton: “Just so you know, I was zozzled last time or else I’d never have let them do that.”

“All In,” September 29, 2013

‘To be zozzled means to be drunk and is probably an alteration of the older sozzled, which is from about 1886.

Sozzled comes from sozzle, to spill or splash, often in a messy manner. Related may be soss referring to a dirty puddle, falling lazily into a seat, or a lazy person. Soss may be imitative in origin. To sossle means to “go about in an aimless idle manner,” according to the OED.

Zozzled seems to have first appeared in writer Edmund Wilson’s 1927 Lexicon of Prohibition, “a catalogue looking back to [Ben] Franklin’s The Drinker’s Dictionary.” While this episode of Boardwalk Empire takes place in 1924, we’re guessing that the word zozzled was in use for several years before Wilson recorded it.