Saturday, March 15, 2008

Irish slang in San Francisco

Lee Templeton's e-mail on this, in a promotion also about the SF Irish Music festival for some reason held this weekend, captures the "blas" of the City. She also roused my jealousy at having had to grow up in another conurbation to the south devoid of even Irish American, let alone Hibernian, charm and lore. Although, I was asked by e-mail by a visiting Dub about the March 17 craic. I recommended O'Brien's on Wilshire in Santa Monica, down by the numbered streets, 23rd or so. The times I have darkened the door of a pub or bar seem few, but I hope you enjoy tomorrow and every other occasion for mirth and mingling duly "responsibly." Here's Lora Lee:

And now: The explanation of "Up Eddy, Down Turk"

In his essay "An Irishman Goes to San Francisco", local historian Michael Corrigan recalls an old City greeting, common in his mid-twentieth century neighborhood: "All the way out Market. Up Eddy, Down Turk." He writes:

I once asked Father the significance of this common greeting. Why were people riding all the way out Market, up Eddy, down Turk? What was down Turk?

He replied "It was an old streetcar line that ran all the way out Market Street, turned up Eddy Street and then went down Turk Street. The conductor would call out: 'All the way out Market, up Eddy, down Turk. All the way out Market." He had a nasal drone like a tinker with his horse and wagon. The line's now discontinued.

"But why do people still say that to each other? What does it mean?"

"I don't know," Father said. "It can mean anything. You hit the jackpot, lose a wife, or win the daily double, you say, 'All the way out Market, up Eddy, down Turk.' I guess it means you've gone the distance."

With this bit of local lore for his starting point, Corrigan delved into the almost forgotten slang of San Francisco's Mission District. Like the best of slang, it is rich in metaphor and word-play. Rhyming schemes as colorful as Cockney cousin variants. You "turn to," or go to work, after pulling "Oscar hocks" over "plates of meat"—that is socks over feet. A morning shave was an "ocean wave," and a breakfast of "dummy and cackles" was eggs on toast, something to fill your "jam and jelly" or belly.

Some the imagery seemed universal. A fool was a "salmon" easily hooked and a "trencherman" was a heavy eater. Other phrases were newly minted in American coinage: an eavesdropper (itself a metaphor!) listening in on your conversation was doing an "Erie Canal." And when you wanted to contact a friend across town – or indeed across the country – you picked up the "Alexander Bell" and dialed.

To make things unique (as you need to do in this town), the Mission District Irish community invented an 'infix,' not heard in any other language except Arabic. This is a syllable added in the middle of a one-syllable word. The syllable was roughly pronounced 'ee-iz' or 'ee-ah' – one example Corrigan provides is 'blonde' which would be thus rendered "bliazond."


So there it is: a regional dialect that crackles with 20th century American cockiness, throwing sparks on the pavement like a Muni streetcar wire. There's jazz there and burlesque and newsreels and radio serials and mugshots and cigarette machines and betting on the horses at the racetrack and the Yellow Kid and coffee and cable cars. It's 23-Skiddoo, kiddo. (That's another piece of slang coined by San Franciscan cartoonist Thomas A. Dorgan earlier in the century…)

For a full taste, here's a retelling of the old childhood story of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the full Mission District style. When I first read this, I just delighted in its verve and local character. Only later, when reading Dance Polyhymnia, Aaron McMullan's novel in progress, and I encountered some of the same words and phrases still in use in his part of the world did it all sink in: language itself is an immigrant.

So, gather round kids and listen to the stirring tale of:

Little Red Riding Hood at Granny's Gaff

Back in the days when the trolley cost a nickel, Little Red Riding Hood went to visit her grandmother. She left behind her waspy friend, Goldilocks, the Bliazond who preferred riding around in daddy's heap. Red Riding Hood took Shank's mare through the woods. After awhile, she made a right and then a left chalk and there it was, Granny's Gaff. Little Red Riding Hood didn't suspect an off shore Benjamin, but inside, a wolf-trencherman that he was, had just eaten Granny. He pulled the old woman's dress over his pair of strides when he saw the girl through the window; holy smoke, he thought, with a second meal for the day, he'd be Indiana. Little Red Riding Hood entered the joint and saw here grandmother in the bed. She stared at Granny's chip.

"My, what thick brothers and sisters you have."

"All the better to tickle you with," said the disguised wolf.

"My, my, and what a long 'I suppose' you have."

"All the better to sniff out today's wonderful lunch," answered the wolf.

"Sure but wearing that lean and fat, I can't see your long gray bonny fair."

"Then come closer," said the wolf. "Take a load off those lovely plates of meat." After a pause, the wolf said, "Those pork and beans fit you so well. Join me in a jar. Then have a loaf of dummy to fill that jam and jelly."

Little Red Riding Hood suspected Benjamin was off shore. Where did Granny get those strides? The Alexander was disconnected. Harp that she was, Granny never offered her a drop. She heard hunters shooting outside. Did they have an Erie Canal?"

"What big pearlies you have, Granny."

The wolf had lost patience. "All the better to eat you with, my dear!"

The wolf sat up but Red Riding Hood knocked the wolf on his Happy Easter. She took an Arthur Duffy outta Granny's gaff and headed for the woods calling to the hunters. The main event appeared, pulling a pistol from his sky rocket as the wolf stood in the door. With a bliazast, it was curtains for that wolf.

Photo: No "Turk & Eddy" combo--the streets run west to the Mission District, paralleling north above Market; logically no two-way black-and-white signage. This of Eddy's about as good as ten minutes of googling images gets. San Francisco: Eddy St.

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