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 saloon..described..as 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.