Mum Your Dubber
One of my characters, who has a bit of a brogue, says “mum’s the word.” I’ve heard the phrase many times; it’s probably considered a cliché by some tight-lipped trumpeters. You know the folks I mean, in love with rules that must not be broken, the folks who are into complete sentences, some of whom don’t really read books so much as forage for typos. I could go on.
Not only is my character into Irish slang, but she loves clichés. So what’s an author to do? She says “mum’s the word” and also introduced me to a word: clutey. If you’re like me and didn’t know the definition, it’s Irish slang and means awkward.
You won’t find clutey in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged. But you will in Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Recently I’ve taken to riffling through this three-volume compilation of English slang, and it’s a great read. It retails for close to $600, but I bought a used-like-new copy of the 2010 edition for $139 on Amazon.
Mum’s the word—be quiet, say nothing about this.
Mum’s the word goes back to at least 1670.
Here’s the first citing in Green’s:
Memoires of Monsieur Du Vall 12: After he had hang’d a convenient time, he was cut down […] and so conveyed to the Tangier Tavern in St. Gile’s where he lay in State […] Mum was the word, great silence expected from all that visited.
My character’s name is Edna, and she has a minor but important role in my latest book, The Brooklyn Drop. Had Edna lived between the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, she might have said “mum your dubber.” According to Green, the phrase means be quiet, shut up, hold your tongue. And dubber, Green tells us, is slang for the mouth.
Photo: Child of the Streets, Lewis Hine, 1910.