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April 10, 2008
Slang of the Week: wooden overcoat (noun phrase)
a coffin

After Big Cookie took the money from his mob boss, it was only a matter of time before he was fitted for a wooden overcoat.

Celebrity quote:
"His devils are arrayed in armies
And his angels will fix the fight
He'll shape you like origami
And throw you away at night
And he's wearing a wooden overcoat"
—Singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding

Since this term, which first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, usually refers to a violent death, it's not surprising that it is often used in connection with gangsters. Later variations, such as cement overcoat, concrete overcoat and cement kimono refer to the custom of disposing of bodies in barrels filled with cement. Mobsters often threw their victims into bodies of water, and by weighting them down, they ensured that the evidence would not float to the surface and give them away. Fitting the body with "cement shoes" is a similar method.

Yet another variation is Chicago overcoat, which detective novelist Raymond Chandler used in his 1939 classic The Big Sleep (which is itself a synonym for death). However, Chandler admits that this was not a "real" gangster term when he wrote it. In a 1950 letter, he remarked, "It is very difficult for the literary man to distinguish between a genuine crook term…and an invented one (like 'Chicago overcoat' for coffin)."

If invented, Chicago overcoat fit the slang of the time. Notorious organized crime boss Al Capone lived in Chicago in the twenties and several gangster-related terms reference his home base. A Chicago piano or Chicago typewriter was a Thompson sub-machinegun. Chicago lightning was gunfire.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! Learn more about contemporary gangs with Colton Simpson’s memoir Inside the Crips: Life Inside L.A.'s Most Notorious Gang. This fascinating story of how Simpson was initiated into a gang as a youngster and subsequently imprisoned for his criminal acts is full of colorful slang and jargon from the streets and prisons.