Brighton Rock slang

Q: In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s characters use “polony” and “buer” for a woman of loose morals, but I can’t find the terms in dictionaries. I know that if I use them in Scrabble I will get challenged!

A: You can find both words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “buer” as a woman, especially “one of loose character,” and “polony” as “a large dried sausage made originally of a mixture of pork and other meats.”

A sausage? Read on. Green’s Dictionary of Slang notes that “polony” (also spelled “polone,” “paloney,” and “polony”) can mean a young woman as well as a sausage.

Most of the womanly citations in Green’s use the term along the lines of such slang words as “broad,” “chick,” “doll,” and “dame.”

It doesn’t take much to imagine how a term for a sausage could take on the figurative slang sense of a woman, especially one who’s well endowed.

The OED says “polony” is another name for “Bologna sausage,” which Americans usually refer to as “bologna” or “baloney.”

Oxford says “polony” is “probably an alteration of Bologna.” John Camden Hotten, in The Slang Dictionary (1913), explains that it’s a Cockney version of “Bologna.”

Jonathan Green, in his slang dictionary, cites theories that the womanly sense of “polony” may have come from Italian words for a chick or a straw mattress.

All the OED citations for “polony” use the term in its sausage sense. The earliest is from a 1654 issue of the journal Mercurius Fumigosus:

“A Lady of Pleaure voiding a Worm in the Coach-box, bigger then a Polony Sassage.” Yes, she took a dump in the coach!

The earliest example in Green’s Dictionary for “polony” as a woman is from an April 18, 1885, article in the Sydney Bulletin about witches, but we find the citation ambiguous.

The first clear-cut example is from Cheapjack, a 1934 memoir by Philip Allingham, the brother of the mystery writer Margery Allingham: “I’d rather ’andle a man any day than a lot of these silly palones.”

And here’s a citation in Green’s from Brighton Rock (1938): “What about that polony he was with?”

As for “buer,” the OED describes the term (also spelled “bure,” “buor,” and “bewer”) as “north. dial. and Tramps’ slang” of unknown origin.

Green’s Dictionary suggests that “buer” might have originated as a word for “tramp” in Shelta, a language spoken by Irish Travellers (itinerants in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere).

The OED’s first citation for “buer” is from an 1807 poem by John Stagg: “A bure her neame was Meg, / A winsome weel far’ word body.”

And here’s an example in the dictionary from Brighton Rock: “ ‘Christ,’ the boy said, ‘won’t anybody stop that buer’s mouth?’ ”

In researching your question, we came across a Brighton Rock glossary on the collaborative website Book Drum. However, the definitions for “buer” and “polony” differ somewhat from ours, and we can’t vouch for the rest of the entries.

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