By Neena Arndt
The Iceman cometh, and he’s bringing the language of 1912 with him.
The Iceman Cometh was written in 1939, but it takes place in that (quasi-fictional) flophouse in 1912, and as an authentic period piece, the play’s dialogue pops with the colorful slang of the early twentieth century. Some of these phrases and terms have retired from the English language entirely, so to help you decipher them, the Goodman Theatre compiled a glossary of Icemanisms, which we've condensed below. We encourage you to peruse the original posts (divided into bar terms, insults, and extras) on their blog.
A drink of whiskey. Perhaps derived from “ball of fire,” referring to the fiery taste of alcohol.
Late nineteenth, early twentieth century slang for “mouth.” Derived from the Dutch word for trumpet, bazuin.
Can be used as an adjective meaning crazy (“he’s
bughouse!”), or to a hospital for the insane (“He belongs in the
bughouse!”). Combination of “bug” (in the sense of “obsessive person”)
and “house.” It dates from the late nineteenth century.
An alcoholic beverage of an inferior quality. This phrase appears in print from 1865 onward.
A “bunco” is a swindling game or scheme; a “bunco
steerer” is the person who runs the game or scheme. Dates from the late
Slang for a particularly excellent or astonishing thing,
usually referring to an anecdote or performance (“That story was a
corker!”). When applied to a person, it suggests a bright, buoyant or
A traveling salesman, defined by John Bartlett, in his
Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) as "a person employed by city houses
to solicit the custom of country merchants." Drummer generally referred
to a salesman who solicits customers for a wholesale house (as distinct
from canvassers, who worked door-to-door selling individual goods). The
word was, if not a derogatory term, at least not reflective of the image
that merchants wanted to create for their traveling salesmen, as it
referred to the energetic and frequently abrasive sales techniques they
used to “drum up sales.”
The willies; nervousness. Dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.
To have bleary or wild-looking eyes, especially as a result of drunkenness. More generally used to describe someone who is drunk, enraged or both.
Drunk or intoxicated. The etymology is unclear, but the term "pie" was slang among printers to refer a page that turned out a blurry mess, and so many guess that "pie-eyed" refers to the blurred vision of a drunk.
A restaurant or tavern, usually below street level, which serves beer. From the German “rath” (town hall) and “keller” (cellar). First appears in English around 1865.
Slang for inferior whiskey.
Slang for inferior alcohol.
A derivative of “shaveling,” an old term for a boy or youth.
The term refers to the fact that many boys need to start shaving during
adolescence, but are not yet fully-grown men.
A sweet cocktail made with sherry, cream, powdered sugar and an egg, with nutmeg sprinkled on top. It is typically considered a ladies’ drink.
Slang for a strong drink, recorded from 1756.
Slang for a drunkard.
A vagabond who is habitually drunk.
Slang for intoxicated or drunk.
Neena Arndt is the The Iceman Cometh Dramaturg. This post is a consolidated version of the Goodman Theatre's three-part series The Iceman Speaketh, originally published on their blog in 2012.