Slang City Mail

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January 18, 2007

Slang of the Week: yegg (noun)
a thief, especially a safe cracker

Danny and the other yeggs stopped outside Big River to get some dynamite for the casino job.

Celebrity quote:
“No police officer who knows his business would think of looking in a 
Pullman sleeper or diner for a fugitive hop fiend yegg with a  twenty–five-year sentence hanging on him.”
-Author Jack Black

If you’ve been on this list for a while, you may have noticed I have a strong interest in the language of unusual subcultures. This month, I’ve been reading Black’s fascinating autobiography, You Can’t Win, and it is a veritable gold mine of hobo and crime vocabulary. Assuming that his readers are respectable people and unfamiliar with the underworld, Black explains all the slang and jargon he uses, giving word histories when possible.

I should mention here that this is not the same Jack Black who starred in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny (another interesting character.) This Black published his incredible life story of crime and punishment in 1926 and his book stars a cast of characters with fantastic nicknames, including “The Sanctimonious Kid,” “Foot-and-a-half George” and “Salt Chunk Mary.”

Inspired as a boy by contemporary outlaw Jesse James, Black started his career of crime in the late nineteenth century. As a teenager, he worked in a saloon and made extra cash by collecting milk money for a local shopkeeper. His first “crime” was helping a captive prostitute escape from a local brothel where he made collections. But he soon moved on to bigger things like home burglary and safe cracking.

He spent half his adult life in prison and became something of a permanent resident of the
San Francisco county jail when the earthquake of 1906 destroyed his records. Ultimately, he was released and reformed with the help of newspaperman Fremont Older.

According to Black, the word yegg “is a corruption of ‘yekk,’ a word from one of the many dialects spoken in
Chinatown, and it means beggar.” Many criminals, like Black, were hop fiends (opium addicts) who spent a considerable amount of time in Chinatown at hop joints (opium dens). Other experts have different theories on the word’s origin, including some who believe it came from a family name and others who think it derives from the German word for hunter (jäger), but I like Black’s version.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! If you’re interested in reading Black’s autobiography for yourself, you can find it by clicking here. It’s definitely one of the most ripping yarns I’ve seen in a while. (It also contains a great deal of practical information for pursuing a life of crime, in case you are tired of your office job.)