P.S. — Bring back the railroads!
Dear Word Detective: I recently searched for a phrase and was amazed that one which appears more than once in old “Pogo” comic strips (of which I’ve been a fan since my grandmother read Pogo to me when I was very young) by the master of ink-brush art, Walt Kelly, is not readily found in any online dictionary of slang or phrases, except one. Yes, that’s right. I’ve already found it, but I thought I would write you a note about it since it was so hard to find. The phrase is “sleeper jump,” and I found both its general meaning and vaudeville interpretation at a site run by Wayne N. Keyser and Ross MacRae (the latter of which, I believe, is a veteran magician and clown) at www.goodmagic.com/carny/vaud.htm. It means, generally, “an overnight train trip,” and in vaudeville, a theater dressing room so high above the stage that it would take a “sleeper jump” to get up to it (those dressing rooms being relegated to the least-known performers). I think it is sad that phrases and slang from the past are not as easily accessed as the words in dozens of dictionaries devoted to slang that is in popular use today. Part of our heritage is the way in which language has been tailored by people in various locations and occupations throughout our history, and we lose something when we can no longer trace the lines back to their colorful, and useful, meanings. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to the hallowed halls where these things are studied and preserved. — Stu Mathews.
Thanks for an interesting note. I too grew up with Pogo, and my childhood Christmases wouldn’t have been complete without a few rousing family renditions of “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie.”
There are a few dictionaries of slang that do list older terms such as “sleeper jump,” including those of Eric Partridge, although his compilations tend to have a British focus. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang also covers many older terms, although the HDAS is a work in progress and only up to the letter O at this point.
The prospect of losing terms such as “sleeper jump” as their original users pass on is indeed distressing, but there is hope of slowing or even stopping the loss of yesterday’s slang and occupational lingo. One recent development is the internet itself, which, as in the case of the website you found, can collect and share this material with the whole world.
Another is the American Dialect Society (www.americandialect.org), which since 1889 has been collecting and studying American English, including just this sort of vanishing vocabulary. You don’t have to be a linguist or lexicographer to join the ADS, and even non-members are welcome to join their email list and browse its archives. If you do join, however, you’ll have online access to the archives of American Speech, the Society’s scholarly journal, dating back to 1925. In fact, I just searched the American Speech archives under “vaudeville” and came up with 59 articles, including a glossary of “American Stage-Hand Language” from 1927. So, fortunately, the ADS is paying attention, and has been for a long time.