Tag Archives: Etymology

Old New York In Photos #47

Before The Flatiron Building

The Intersection of 23rd Street Where 5th Avenue and Broadway Meet – 1900

23rd Street 5th Avenue Broadway site of Flatiron Building circa 1900This view of 23rd Street at the intersection of Fifth Ave and Broadway was taken around 1900. The ornate street lamp and multitude of signs and advertising make this a great street level photograph. There is also something very interesting that I have rarely seen in any late 19th century photo of New York and that is another photographer taking a picture at the same time that this one was taken. He is directly to the left of the street lamp and the tripod is clearly visible while his head is under the covers to line up his shot.

From the approximate direction his camera is pointing, it looks like he is shooting straight up Broadway toward the Worth monument. I’d like to imagine that behind the camera is Joseph or Percy Byron of the famous New York Byron Company.

The famous Fuller Building, better known as the Flatiron went up in 1902 Continue reading

Where Did The Saying “Up The River” Come From?

A Movie Cliche’s New York Origins

If you ever watch any gangster films from the 1930’s or 40’s, one of the lines of dialogue that always pops up is: “up the river.”

Somebody would utter it: a criminal; prosecutor; police officer; or a fellow gangster. Listen and it will be said in most of these early crime movies.

Lines like:

“Didn’t you hear, Rocky’s going up the river.”

“If you don’t talk Ike, I can guarantee you’re going to spend a long stretch up the river.”

“I’m not takin’ the fall to go up the river for a heist you did, Spats.”

The term “up the river” as most people know refers to going to prison.

So where did the saying come from?

In the 1800’s, when you were charged with a crime and sent to prison in New York City, the accused would first be taken to the prison on Centre Street in lower Manhattan which was known as “the Tombs” built in 1838.

The Tombs were so named because the original structure had large granite columns on the outside of the building which  resembled Egyptian burial architecture, a.k.a. tombs. The Tombs though, were merely a holding prison for the accused criminals awaiting trial.

After sentencing, convicts were sent to a prison on Blackwell’s Island (today known as Roosevelt Island) in the middle of the East River.

However if you were a habitual offender or committed a very serious offense, you would be sent thirty miles north, up the Hudson River to Sing Sing prison. This is the origin of the phrase being sent, “up the river.” Sing Sing separated the hardened criminals from the run of the mill pickpockets, burglars and ordinary thieves.

Even though, the term “up the river” originally referred to Sing Sing, it was eventually applied to anyone being sent to any prison.

The “New” Led Zeppelin

The Name Game Continues

While New Zealand may have outlawed some names, the USA, with the exception of what a judge may find to be a frivolous name, (Your Majesty; Copyright; Superman) still allows people to name themselves or their offspring pretty much whatever they want.

So when George Blackburn, 64, of Bethalto, IL recently got divorced, he wanted a fresh start and legally renamed himself Led Zeppelin II. According to an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch the newly named Zeppelin said: Continue reading

Stupid Baby Names Outlawed in New Zealand

New Zealand’s Birth Registrar bans “Lucifer” “Messiah” “General” and “*”  as Names

As reported in the West Australian newspaper on July 19 and other news outlets down under the New Zealand  registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages have compiled a list of 102 names (so far) of names they will not allow parents to name their bundles of joy.

It might seem an arbitrary list, as they allowed one set of parents to name their child “Violence.”

Wouldn’t it be easier to just change your own name rather than embarrassing your offspring with your own idea of a unique name?

This is probably a case of the government overstepping their boundaries, but I am astounded by the number of stupid names American parents give their babies.

In New York City, a teacher I know who taught in the lower income South Bronx, actually encountered two children (from different families) with incredibly unique names.  Continue reading

The “B” Girl

The “B” Girl.  A Saying You Won’t Hear Today

I had vaguely heard the term B-girl mentioned in the past. Whether it was from some early film noir cinema or pulp fiction I cannot recall.  The 1940 Pulitzer Prize winning William Saroyan play The Time of Your Life was made into a film in 1948 and was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies and I watched it for the odd turn of tough guy Jimmy Cagney playing a philosophical bar patron. It is an uneven movie, but what was interesting was Jeanne Cagney’s  (yes – Jimmy’s sister) portrayal of Kitty Duval and the referral of her character as possibly being a B-girl.

So what exactly is a B-Girl?

1948 Production Still

First thought – Hays code vernacular for a bar prostitute.

Looking the term up in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary it is slang for a ‘bar girl’ –  a woman who entertains bar patrons and encourages them to spend freely. Online other meanings emerged – it could also mean a prostitute that hangs around in bars. Either way it was not a compliment.