Green’s Dictionary of Slang

sardine n.

1. (US) a general term of abuse, a fool.

[US]S.F. Call 26 Mar. n.p.: ‘Answer the question.’ ‘Answer it yourself, if you can. I’m no sardine.’.
[US]C.G. Leland ‘Breitmann in Politics’ in Hans Breitmann About Town 50: Ash dey shvored dat Copitan Breitmann / Vas a brick-pat, and no sardine.
[US]Petroleum Centre Dly Record (PA) 17 Sept. 2/1: ‘What’s that, you sardine!’.
[US]J. Miller First Fam’lies in the Sierras 51: Well, Sandy is no sardine.
[US]Wichita Eagle (KS) 24 Dec. 7/1: What excuse can possibly be offered for such words as [...] ‘sardine,’ ‘chump’ [etc.].
[US]W.C. Gore Student Sl. in Cohen (1997) 14: sardine n. Fellow, ‘duffer’.
[US]M.G. Hayden ‘Terms Of Disparagement’ in DN IV:iii 198: sardine, a simpleton.

2. (US) a person.

[US]Night Side of N.Y. 118: It was not long before they were recruited by a fresh lot of young ‘sardines’ from some where else.
[US]Ft Worth Dly Gaz. (TX) 29 Aug. 6/3: When we met a good old friend [...] / We greeted him but didn’t say / ‘Hello, you old sardine’.
[US]F. Dumont Dumont’s Joke Book 42: Dudes are called ‘sardines’.
[US]H. Green Actors’ Boarding House (1906) 370: Where can the old sardine be?
[US]J.P. McEvoy Hollywood Girl 227: Give my love to all the rush hour sardines.
[US]T. Wolfe Web and the Rock 402: Every man, the blind could tell you as they struggled through the subway door while there was still room for one more visionless sardine, was ‘getting his’.

3. (US campus) a young woman.

[US]F.S. Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise in Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald III (1960) 55: I’d like to bring a sardine to the prom in June.
[NZ]Eve. Post (Wellington) 25 Jan. 8/8: Modern Americanisms [...] The names for girls are legion [...] ‘Canary,’ ‘Hairpin,’ ‘Sardine,’ ‘Hotsie-Totsie’ or plain ’darb’.

4. a run-down prostitute.

[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn) 200: sardine A dirty and filthy prostitute.

SE in slang uses, implying tight packing

In compounds

sardine box (n.)

1. a small railway compartment; note Punch’s nickname (1890) for the underground City & S, London Railway: the sardine-box railway.

[Amer. Machinist 25 1168/1: During the rush hours every car of every line is packed like a sardine box].
[US]W.A. Livergood diary 15 June 🌐 We went up to the railroad station at about 8 Oclock got on the train [...] We were packed in them sardine boxes.

2. (US) a small apartment.

[US]D. Runyon ‘Far from the Big, Bright Aisle’ 9 July [synd. col.] I’d sort o’ like to [...] hang me hat up in the sardine box [...] which I called home .
sardine can (n.)

1. a prison or police van [the close-packing of the prisoners].

[UK]J. Ware Passing Eng. of the Victorian Era.
[UK]P. Baker Blood Posse 301: I [was] slung into a solid iron van known as a sardine can.

2. (US) a small car.

Eve. Capital News (Boise, ID) 4 Jan. 33/1: ‘Some sardine can you’re driving, Jeff’.
[[US]T. Pluck ‘Deadbeat’ in Life During Wartime (2018) 28: My cousin Kari’s wants a Chevy Suburban, says she feels like she’s in a tiny can of sardines driving the minivan].
sardine grip (n.)

(Aus.) a close embrace.

[Aus]Sport (Adelaide) 1 May 4/2: John W reckons the sardine grip is good, but has not caught a tart .
sardine money (n.) [the image of tinned sardines as poor people’s food]

(US black) a nugatory amount of money.

[US]‘Grandmaster Flash’ Adventures 149: ‘We’re top-billing,’ says Rahiem, ‘and you’re paying us sardine money’.
sardine tin (n.)

(Aus.) any extremely small dwelling.

[UK]Sporting Times 20 Jan. 3/4: Folks called her a floating palace— / Outboard she looked that same— / But a sardine tin she was within, / ’Twas we that gave her the name!

In phrases

do the sardine act (v.)

(US black) to stand extremely close to one’s neighbours, e.g. in an auditorium.

‘Marienne’ ‘Solid Meddlin’’ in People’s Voice (NY) 14 Mar. 33/1: The auditorium was doing the sardine act and the mitt pounding came up like thunder.