A lot of slang terms from earlier eras still hold up today. It’s not unusual to hear something called “rad”, “cool”, or “awesome”. It’s also not odd for someone to say that they are “bummed out”. But some slang is just too specialized to enter the general lexicon.
Terms that rose up within the labor organizations of the late 1800s and early 1900s, for example, didn’t quite make it mainstream in the same way. In particular, a handful of synonyms for strikebreaker, while recognized by some, have clearly fallen out of general usage. We’ll break down some of these words in this post, since learning about particular terms from the past can be a useful window into history. And who knows, maybe some of them will come back?
Synonyms for Strikebreaker
Scab as an insult predates its particular use as a synonym for strikebreaker. The basic definition of scab, “the crust that forms over a wound”, seems like a natural fit for an insult. It use as a put-down was general at first; akin to a scoundrel, rascal, or villain. According to etymologists, the first use of the word as an insult is quite old – going back to the 1500s. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that it began to be used specifically for strikebreakers.
The word “scab” was considered a pretty intense insult at that point. One famous passage, often attributed to Jack London, outlines the scab as follows:
“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.”
It’s not confirmed that Jack London said this quote specifically, and even if he had, his later writings seem significantly more sympathetic to strikebreakers. Regardless of the exact source, this quote captures the general sentiment.
Another of the synonyms for strikebreaker that developed was “blackleg”. It may not be perfectly interchangeable with scab, though; some sources say that a scab is generally an outsider to the company hired specifically for strikebreaking, where a blackleg is a worker who predates the strike and chooses not to participate.
The etymology is pretty unclear on this one. One theory suggests that the insult might relate to rooks, birds with black legs. Rooks were distinctly disliked in some parts of the world. Other theories suggest that it references miners with pant-legs rolled up, showing coal dust or oil as evidence of work. Like scab, blackleg is also associated with disease. In modern times, it’s more commonly used to indicate a specific disease common to cows and sheep than it is organized labor or strikebreakers. It has also, at times, been associated with cheaters and gamblers.
Ratfink has fallen in and out of use a few times, both used specifically for strikebreakers and more generally. The general insult is for tattle-tales or untrustworthy people. That as a synonym for strikebreakers makes sense then, based on the view of strikebreakers at the time. The rat part seems natural, and again associates strikebreakers with symbols of disease. It also has a tenuous link to birds, like blacklegs, in that “fink” might be based on the German word for “finch”. That would make both halves of the word reminiscent of phrases like “ratted out” or “sing like a canary”, which also refer to giving up allies to authorities for punishment.
The fear of informants wasn’t paranoia either; anti-union groups like the Pinkertons did genuinely send in spies to undermine labor organizations. This is the basis of another etymological theory for the word, which is that a linguistic shift turned “pink”, as a reference to the Pinkertons, into ‘fink’. After the labor movement settled, use of the word “ratfink” fell out of style until the 1960s, where it became more generalized in use again.