Susan Russo Anderson
Mum Your Dubber
The Brooklyn Drop is Fina’s fourth book. One of its characters, Edna O’Toole, works at a fictitious airport in New Jersey, the scene of a fateful airplane takeoff before the mystery begins. Anyway, Edna has a bit of a brogue. And she 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 as if they were girdles, some of whom don’t really read books so much as forage for typos.
Not only is Edna into Irish slang, but she loves clichés. She says mum’s the word. She also introduced me to 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. It’s advertised as “five-hundred years of the vulgar tongue.” Green’s retails for close to $600, but I bought a like-new copy of the 2010 edition for $139 on Amazon. You can also subscribe to the online version for a hefty annual fee.
The meaning of mum’s the word: be quiet, say nothing about this. The phrase 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.”
Edna O’Toole has a minor but important role in The Brooklyn Drop. Like all the characters in the book, Edna is contemporary. But had she lived between the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, she might have said mum your dubber, and not mum’s the word. According to Green’s, the phrase means be quiet, shut up, hold your tongue. And dubber, Green’s tells us, is slang for the mouth. Now I feel like creating a character just perfect for using the phrase—a contemporary salty character, inventive in her invective.
The following scene occurs in a later chapter of The Brooklyn Drop.
Edna proved to be more helpful.
“Such an unusual shade of purple,” Lorraine began. “I wore something similar to my son’s first communion.”
And they were off.
Turns out Edna had been working at the airport for thirty-five years and was on duty the day of the crash. “Pull up a chair, and I’ll find those records for you, a list of mechanics and their dates, you say? ’Course, we have FBOs,” she said, explaining FBOs were a sort of middleman, providing various services for the airport, like maintenance and fuel pumping.
“You mean you outsource,” Lorraine said.
“Precisely, my dear. But I know how to gather my rosebuds, you might say. They’re called macros, and when anyone needs information, I use one of my macros to pick the right bunches. What church, love? Wasn’t David the King, was it?”
Lorraine did a double take and shook her head. “Mary, Star of the Sea, but it was a while ago. I just haven’t seen that shade of purple in a long time.”
“Been there, but it was years ago. Thought you looked familiar. Altar and Rosary?”
Lorraine nodded, opening her mouth, but Edna beat her.
“Eggplant—that’s what it’s called today. But I bought it a while ago.”
“It looks like you just took it home from the store.”
Edna beamed and reached down to pick up the pages she’d printed. “Got to dress up or this place can get to you, know what I mean?”
I grabbed the list from Edna’s hands.
“We’re so appreciative of your skills and helpfulness. I feel like I’ve gained a friend,” Lorraine said, shooting me her raised brows.
“List of mechanics organized according to dates.”
The list was long. Knob Hill had been in business over fifty years, and she’d digitized all the records, but there was one name that stood out. I passed the paper to Lorraine, whose eyes widened when I pointed to Garth Goncourt. In parenthesis next to his name, there was a spread of dates. I asked Edna about him.
“Interesting man. He left for a while, I’m not sure why. I’d have to look in his file, but I think he joined the army.” She considered. “That’s it. Went to Afghanistan. They needed mechanics, he told me.” Shielding her mouth, she leaned toward Lorraine. “Came back a little clutey, if you know what I mean.” Squinting at her screen, she did the keyboard and mouse thing, bringing up his record. “He was on the payroll when the crash happened. We don’t get many red alerts, you know, so I remember it. ’Course, the crash didn’t happen here. Still, nasty business. Government on our backs for months. Ever so fierce.”
She was like a waterfall of words, and we said nothing, not wanting the flow to stop.
Photo: cover, The Brooklyn Drop. Design, Avalon Graphics.