Posted by: Jack Henry | November 10, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Bootleggers

I was just browsing through the book Even-Steven and Fair and Square: More Stories Behind the Words by Morton S. Freeman, and I came upon an interesting entry about bootleggers. As I have mentioned before, though, I sometimes end up digging into something and I end up down a rabbit hole. Welcome to today’s journey.

As far as Mr. Freeman’s definition for bootlegger, he has this to say:

Bootlegger is an odd name for a booze peddler. The name originally was applied to those who trafficked in illegal liquor by smuggling, especially among the (indigenous Americans), flasks of firewater in the legs of their boots, a practice designed to conceal the illicit merchandise from government agents. With time, the term bootlegger came to be applied to distributors of illegal booze, whether delivered by hand or by truck or even left at a convenient place. No longer did a bootlegger operate through his boots. Remember the story of the station master who, during Prohibition, called up the Greek professor and said: “Professor, you’d better get down to the station fast because your package of books is leaking all over the platform.”

I found that interesting, but I was surprised at the brevity of the entry. And then, because they’re related by alcohol and illegality, I thought about the word speakeasy. Here is where my path followed the little white rabbit into the internet hole and went hopping.

First, I thought I’d check the definition of speakeasy with one of my favorite sites, the Online Etymology Dictionary:


“unlicensed saloon,” 1889 (in the New York “Voice”), from verbal phrase, from speak (v.) + easy (adv.); so called from the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police and neighbors. The word gained wide currency in U.S. during Prohibition (1920-1932). In early 19c. Irish and British dialect, a speak softly shop meant “smuggler’s den.”

My temptation was to go even further into my interests, which include architecture and history, but I can’t get too much further off track. I’ve heard tell of cool, hidden speakeasy entryways here in America, and I did a quick search to find an example of one in general. I found one in New York (an original Prohibition speakeasy, still in use) and a modern entrance from Shanghai.

New York water tower speakeasy

Shanghai Coke machine entrance to a modern speakeasy

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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