Green’s Dictionary of Slang

lay n.3

[OF lei, law, which itself is the root of the synon. law n.]

1. (UK Und.) any kind of criminal activity; usu. modified by a participle that denotes the speciality, e.g. chiving-lay under chiv n.1 ; clouting lay n.; crack lay under crack n.4 ; kid lay under kid n.1 ; maundering lay under maunder v.

[UK]Cibber Double Gallant I i: saun.: I never mind Accounts; I don’t understand ’em. sir sol.: Pray, Sir, what is’t you do understand? saun.: Bite, Bam, and the best of the Lay, old Boy.
[UK]A. Smith Lives of Most Noted Highway-men, etc. I 165: One Humphrey Jackson, a Butcher, who [...] went upon the sweetening Lay of Luck in a Bag. [Ibid.] 191: She went upon the Question-Lay, which is putting herself into a good handsome Dress [...] then she takes an empty band-box in her Hand, and passing for a Milliner’s or Sempstress’s ’Prentice, she goes early to Person’s House, and [...] asks the Servant if the Lady is stirring yet [...] then the Servant going up Stairs to acquaint the Lady of this Message, she in the meantime robs the House, and goes away without an Answer.
[UK]C. Hitchin Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers 13: Those three young Lads, altho’ they are young, yet they are Boman Prigs, and as such go on the Lay call’d the Dub.
[UK]J. Dalton Narrative of Street-Robberies 34: Going upon that Lay, Susan made a Dive into a Gentleman’s Pocket.
[UK]C. Johnson Hist. of Highwaymen &c. 142: He acquainted him with the several Lays which the Thieves went upon.
[UK]Bailey Universal Etym. Eng. Dict.
[UK]Canting Academy, or the Pedlar’s-French Dict. 117: A good or bad way of getting of Money Going upon a Rum Lay.
[UK]J. Poulter Discoveries (1774) 9: We went into the North of England [...] on the sharping Lay, and won between thirty and forty Pounds at Cards, alias Broads.
[UK]Proc. Old Bailey 14 Sept. [Internet] while he was drinking it came in Lydia Cox , who talked to him about his going on the scamp, and the lay, cant words used among thieves for going a thieving.
[UK]Bloody Register I 126: He [...] then went upon the other lay, taking Lobs (portmanteaus, boxes, trunks, &c. from behind coches).
[UK]G. Parker View of Society II 38: Should this Book come across any of the gentry on the scamp lay, it would teach them [...] to spare the poor.
[UK]Jew Swindler n.p.: I have some hopes of a young Gentleman’s note this afternoon, but he seems cruel leary [...] says that friend of his who has been done at this lay.
[UK]W. Perry London Guide vi: Great numbers of lads upon every kind of lay.
[UK]W.T. Moncrieff Tom and Jerry II vi: We haven’t had a better job a long vile nor the shabby genteel lay. That, and the civil rig, told in a pretty penny.
[UK] ‘Pickpocket’s Chaunt’ (trans. of ‘En roulant de vergne en vergne’) in Vidocq (1829) IV 259: As from ken to ken I was going, / Doing a bit on the prigging lay.
[UK]Bell’s Wkly Messenger 11 Dec. 398/1: I, like a fool that i was, told her all about my lay with Jim.
[Aus]Satirist & Sporting Chron. (Sydney) 25 Feb. 3/2: Claud cannot pay / This nasty, teasing bill, / So this very day, I’ll be off on the lay [i.e. street-walking] / And, damme, I’ll see who will.
[US]Ladies’ Repository (N.Y.) Oct. VIII:37 316/1: Crack lay, an expedition for the purpose of house-breaking. [...] Crib lay, an expedition for the purpose of stealing out of houses.
[US]G. Thompson Jack Harold 60: Cabin lay – robbing vessels.
[UK]Leaves from Diary of Celebrated Burglar 19/1: There is no other ‘mob’ hereabouts on the same ‘lay’ that we are upon.
[UK]Five Years’ Penal Servitude 144: His peculiar ‘lay’ or line of business, which always brought him into trouble, was the stealing of pewter pots.
[US] ‘Lady Kate, the Dashing Female Detective’ in Roberts et al. Old Sleuth’s Freaky Female Detectives (1990) 14/3: She had struck many big bonanzas in her professional career, but it appeared as though she had struck upon the best ‘lay’ of all her life.
[UK]‘Doss Chiderdoss’ ‘Otherwise Engaged’ Sporting Times 22 Mar. 1/3: Had he finished up the day with the luncheon lifting lay, / To his capers there would not have been a check.
[UK]Marvel XIII:322 Jan. 5: If any one of you care to undertake the working of this lay [...] just say so.
[UK][perf. Vesta Tilley] Please, sir, I’ve lost my way [lyrics] ‘Why, that's a pair / Of latest London's swindlers [...] / He’s not a bobby, she’s his wife, that artful lay they work.
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 20 Jan. 4/7: For, on the Ascot course one dusty day, / I watched a jockey on the Roping Lay.
[UK]E. Pugh Cockney At Home 164: Then [...] there’s your flash cove. Your fly-flat. Knows nothin’, an’ don’t even know he knows that. The out-an’-out, whiney-piney’s the lay with him.
[US]F. Packard Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1918) I xi: You’re supposed to have snitched the lay to us, that’s all.
South Eastern Times (Millicent, SA) 27 Mar. 4/5: Every professional criminal sticks closely to his own particular branch of whatever ‘lay’ he adopts.
[US]M.C. Sharpe Chicago May (1929) 142: Maurice’s lay was to get his friends to steer Americans, who wanted to smoke, to his place.
[US]T. Thursday ‘Good Luck is No Good’ Federal Agent Nov. [Internet] The lay is right and I feel lucky as hell.
[US]T. Thursday ‘You Gotta Have Luck’ Popular Sports Jan. n.p.: ‘Okay, okay!’ snapped Gypsy. ‘What’s the lay?’.

2. any form of enterprise, business or occupation; often the terms or conditions of such a contract or job.

[UK]Burton Hist. of the Reign of Queen Anne (1880) II 159: After having reconnoitred it [Alicant], I would have given something to have been off of the lay, having found it quite another sort of place than what it was represented to me to be [F&H].
[UK]R. Wodrow Analecta II (1842) 257: I hear that the Treasurer has been at much pains to bribe Steele off the lay that he is upon.
[UK]J. Poulter Discoveries (1774) 42: What Ridge or Lay do you go on in this Gaff or Vile; what Business do you go on in this Fair or Town.
[UK]Bridges Burlesque Homer (3rd edn) 409: The Greeks [...] Were drawn into so bad a lay / They could not fetch themselves away.
[UK]Grose Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue n.p.: Lay, enterprize, pursuit, or attempt.
[UK]Bridges Burlesque Homer (4th edn) II 213: [as cit. 1772].
[UK]Mr Lawson ‘Chaunt’ in Egan Boxiana I 477: He was beaten black and blue, sirs, / By one deep in the fancy lay.
[UK]‘A. Burton’ Adventures of Johnny Newcome IV 249: I’m sick and weary of the lay!
[US]‘Ned Buntline’ G’hals of N.Y. 18: I’m goin’ to try my hand on another lay.
[UK]Illus. London News 31 Aug. 183/2: The words I heard were [...] couched in the purest and raciest Houndsditch slang [...] ‘l shay, young’un, here’s a shance; fork up a bob, and I’ll put you on a lay you never know nothink of, to vin no end of monish vith the ivories, or the blacks and reds’.
[US]‘Artemus Ward’ Artemus Ward, His Book 65: You air full of sentiments. That’s your lay, while I’m a exhibiter of startlin curiosities.
[US]W.H. Thomes Bushrangers 94: Can’t you tell me what lay you are on, and what you intend to do in Melbourne?
[UK] ‘’Arry at a Political Pic-Nic’ Punch 11 Oct. 180/1: The latest new lay’s Demonstrations.
[UK]R. Barnett Police Sergeant C 21 132: What new lay are you going to shove yourself on, superintendent?
[UK]R. Whiteing No. 5 John Street 210: Does the Jew’s Poker, Saturdays [...] though it’s a poor lay summer-time.
[UK]J. Masefield ‘Fever-Chills’ Salt-Water Ballads 18: Come none o’ your Cape Horn fever lays aboard o’ this yer ship.
[Aus]H. Lawson ‘Diogenes’ in Roderick (1972) 692: Now, the search-for-an-honest-man game was about played out, and the old man hadn’t thought up a new lay yet.
[Aus]‘G.B. Lancaster’ Jim of the Ranges 22: You’re not thinkin’ you’re on a soft lay, are you?
[US]J. Lait ‘Charlie the Wolf’ Beef, Iron and Wine (1917) 48: What’s your lay?
[Ire]Joyce Ulysses 280: - That the lay you’re on now? says Joe. – Ay, says I. How the mighty are fallen! Collector of bad and doubtful debts.
[UK]M. Marshall Tramp-Royal on the Toby 64: So we parted; my china to try his arm at the chanting lay and I to bruise my knuckles at the knocking stunt.
[UK]A. Christie Sparkling Cyanide (1955) 161: I had orders to get on friendly terms with Lord Dewsbury – that was my lay.
[US]Southern & Hoffenberg Candy (1970) 153: Natch I was hip to the lay the moment I dug his joint.
[US]B. Jackson Get Your Ass in the Water (1974) 137: Now boys, whilst you out there slippin’ and slidin’ be sure to take your time / and anchor some a your lays in some First State Dime.

3. the life and practice of crime, as in the lay.

[UK]H.B.M. Watson New Rev. July 2: For it was his aim to stand in security somewhere half-way ’twixt us fellows and the Law, and squeeze the both; and but that he had the lives of scores upon his tongue, and was very useful withal at a pinch, both to us on the lay and to the traps, he would have been hanged or pistolled for his pains long since [F&H].

4. stolen goods.

H. Tufts Autobiog 293: To scrag a lay . . . to take clothes from the hedges.

5. (US) one’s (hidden) intention or aim.

[UK]Dickens Oliver Twist (1966) 386: The lay is just to take their money away .
[UK]A. Mayhew Paved with Gold 284: Come, out with it? What’s your lay?
[UK](con. 1840s–50s) H. Mayhew London Labour and London Poor III 98/1: I couldn’t believe it at first, but when I see which was their lay, then says I, ‘Now I’ll settle this’.
[UK]Five Years’ Penal Servitude 236: I know a better lay than that.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 15 Oct. 14/2: The man pleaded pertinaciously, but deferentially withal [...]. Then the sundowner changed his lay [...].
[UK]Boy’s Own Paper 13 Apr. 437: ‘What’s the lay, matey?’ said he. ‘Going to join your ship?’.
[US]F. Packard Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1918) I ii: ‘Wot’s de lay, Runt?’ he whispered.
[US]Black Mask Aug. III 60: Shoot! What’s the lay?
[US]R. Chandler ‘Goldfish’ Red Wind (1946) 183: Haven’t seen a dick in a year. To talk to. What’s your lay?
[NZ]N. Marsh Died in the Wool (1963) 239: Inviting them to come and have another pop at you, sir? is that the lay? Taking a risk, aren’t you?

6. (UK Und.) a place considered for robbing.

[US]E. Judson Mysteries of N.Y. 36: ’Ave you found a bang-up lay?
[US]G. Henderson Keys to Crookdom 410: Lay. A place to burglarize.
[UK]J. Curtis Gilt Kid 101: If he could get one of these lays weighed up properly there would be an even break of getting a good night’s wages.

7. (US) a state of affairs.

[US]Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (4th edn) 346: Lay. Situation; condition; relative aspect. ‘The lay of the land,’ the situation of affairs.
[US]J. Lait ‘Canada Kid’ Beef, Iron and Wine (1917) 159: I takes one look an’ I tumbles to the lay.
[US]D. Hammett ‘The Scorched Face’ Story Omnibus (1966) 90: I’ll give you the lay.
[US]J. Gray ‘The Nudist Gym Death Riddle’ Vice Squad Detective [Internet] What’s the lay, kid? Has anyone left this joint?
[US]C. Himes ‘Strictly Business’ Coll. Stories (1990) 143: He wormed in and out, hurried but not hasty, casing the lay as he went.
[UK]G. Kersh Fowlers End (2001) 273: I still don’t get this lay.

8. (Aus.) a trick, a deception.

[Aus]E. Dyson Spats’ Fact’ry (1922) 39: Another lay that’s popular with lads what don’t want their girls t’ cherish mad idears is the mag about marriage bein’ barred by the great hinistitution what pays ’em [...] for their valuable services.

9. an obsession, a subject.

[Aus]C.J. Dennis ‘Faltering Knight’ Rose of Spadgers [Internet] When they git on that lay, / Wise coves adjourns the meet, an’ fades away.

In phrases

on the lay (also upon the lay)

involved in some form of illegal activity.

[UK]Ordinary of Newgate Account 22 Sept. [Internet] Branch proposed to Desent to go upon the Lay, as the cant Term is, i.e. to go a robbing.
[UK]J. Messink Choice of Harlequin I viii: Ye scamps, ye pads, ye divers, and all upon the lay.
[Ire] ‘De Kilmainham Minit’ Luke Caffrey’s Gost 7: De Trotler may still be outwitted, / And I scout again on de Lay.
[UK]W. Scott Heart of Mid-Lothian (1883) 260: Deil a gude fellow that has been but twelvemonth on the lay, be he ruffler or padder, but he knows my gybe as well as the jark of e’er a queer cuffin in England – and there’s rogue’s Latin for you.
[UK] ‘Sonnets for the Fancy’ Egan Boxiana III 622: And while his flaming mot was on the lay, / With rolling kiddies, Dick would dive and buz.
[UK]Dickens Oliver Twist (1966) 353: Dodger! Charley! It’s time you were on the lay.
[US]‘Ned Buntline’ Mysteries and Miseries of N.Y. I 35: Let’s hear wot’s on the lay!
[UK]H. Kingsley Recollections of G. Hamlyn (1891) 297: ‘Butty,’ says I, ‘who are those chaps round here on the lay?’ (meaning, Who are the bushrangers?).
[UK] ‘’Arry on Crutches’ Punch 3 May 201/1: Blue-blooded blokes a green Cop might mistake for foot-pads on the lay.
[UK]G.R. Sims ‘The Matron’s Story’ Ballads of Babylon 24: They found out you’re the parson as ’tices the gals away / They say it’s through you they preaches and goes on the ‘Christian’ lay.
[UK]H.B.M. Watson in New Rev. July 2: For it was his aim to stand in security somewhere half-way ’twixt us fellows and the Law, and squeeze the both; and but that he had the lives of scores upon his tongue, and was very useful withal at a pinch, both to us on the lay and to the traps, he would have been hanged or pistolled for his pains long since [F&H].
[UK]G.R. Sims Anna of the Und. 204: We take the swag, and you can bet on me that it will be worth having, or I shouldn’t be on the lay.
pull one’s lay (v.)

(US black) to do something, e.g. perform music.

[US]L. Durst Jives of Dr. Hepcat (1989) 1: Chappie the way they pull their lay hips our ship that they are from the land of razz ma tazz.
work a lay (v.)

(US und.) to pursue a criminal scheme, usu. confidence trickery.

[US]A. Trumble Mysteries of N.Y. 62: They were at latest accounts ‘working a lay’ as they technically express it, in the sale of Havana cigarettes and foreign cordials, both of which have their origin in New York.