Green’s Dictionary of Slang

work v.

1. [17C+] to have sexual intercourse.

2. [late 18C+] to do, to perform, to carry through a plan of action; usu. in combs. such as work the bulls , work the oracle etc.

3. [late 18C+] to exploit .

4. [late 18C+] to practise one’s occupation as a criminal, e.g. a thief, confidence trickster or beggar; thus working n.

5. [mid-19C] to trade in.

6. [late 19C+] (US) to charm or enthral, esp. an audience.

7. [late 19C+] to get or to get rid of, esp. by artifice.

8. [late 19C+] of an object, to be in active use, e.g. here’s a dollar that’s not working.

9. [1900s] (US und.) to blackmail.

10. [1930s+] to work as a street prostitute.

11. [1960s–70s] (orig. US black) to exchange sexual favours for money; thus to work as a call-girl, ‘escort’ or prostitute; thus working n.

12. [1960s+] (US) to place under pressure; to interrogate; to cause strong feelings.

13. [1960s+] to deal with in some way.

14. [1980s+] (US campus) to beat up.

15. [1990s+] to stimulate sexually.

16. [1990s+] to work as a street seller.

In compounds

workbench (n.) [sense 1]

[early 19C; 1960s] a bedstead.

workman (n.)

see separate entry.

In phrases

work a clout (v.)

[late 18C] to steal a handkerchief.

work a crowd (v.) (also work a room)

1. [late 19C] of a pickpocket, to make one’s way through a crowd, robbing opportunistically.

2. [1930s+] to ply one’s trade to an audience, begging, preaching, entertaining etc.

work a dodge (v.)

[mid-19C] to perform an action, with undertones of cunning, duplicity.

work a game (v.) [game n. (6)]

[1950s] to pursue a (usu. criminal) scheme or plan.

work a joint (v.)

[1900s] (Aus.) to carry off some form of swindle.

work a point/work points (v.)

see under point n.

work a ready (v.)

[1910s+] (Aus.) to concoct a swindle or fraud.

work a spot (v.)

[1990s+] (US black) to sell drugs or sex from a specific location.

work by the book (v.) (US black)

[1940s+] of a pimp, to run his professional life by the recognized ‘rules and regulations’ of the pimping life, supposedly enshrined in an authoritative Book [Book, the n. (1)].

work from a book (v.) (US black)

[1960s+] to conduct business through an address book, so eliminating many of the problems (esp. police interference) that are met in street prostitution [book n. (2b)].

work high (v.) [1930s] (US Und.)

1. to rob in broad daylight.

2. to work out of one’s criminal class.

work hot (v.) [hot adj. (5a)]

[1980s+] (Aus. prison) to do something illegal.

work it (v.)

[late 19C+] to arrange, often by underhand or duplicitous methods.

work low (v.) [anton. of work high ]

[1930s] (US Und.) to take on a less prestigious criminal job than usual.

work off (v.)

1. [mid–late 19C] to hang; to execute.

2. [late 19C] (UK Und.) to pass a forged bank note or other counterfeit object into general circulation; thus worker-off n.

work one’s points (v.)

[1940s] (US) to get on with something, to do or perform.

work on shorts (v.) [the pickpocketing team is short, i.e. composed of just one person]

[1920s] (US Und.) to work as a pickpocket by oneself.

work the boards (v.) [boards n.]

[1970s] (UK Und.) to run the ‘three-card trick’.

work the bulls (v.) [bull n.3 (3)]

[mid-19C] (Aus./UK Und.) to pass counterfeit crown coins.

work the hole (v.) (also make the hole) [hole n.1 (2e)]

[1940s–50s] (US Und.) to rob drunks who have passed out in the subway.

work the knocker (v.)

[1950s–60s] (UK Und.) to tour houses, ostensibly to buy or sell goods, but spec. to trick or bully people into selling heirlooms, antiques etc. for minimal prices.

work the noble (v.)

[late 19C] (UK tramp) to beg as an impoverished clergyman or upperclass person.

work the oracle (v.) [SE oracle, a prophet]

1. [19C] to raise money by fraud or deceit.

2. [19C] to raise money.

3. [mid-19C] (US Und.) to plan a robbery.

4. [mid-19C+] to plan, to manoeuvre, to succeed through cunning.

5. to perform a robbery.

6. [late 19C] (Aus.) to perform a given action.

7. [1910s] (Aus.) to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

work the rattler(s) (v.) [rattler n. (1d)]

1. [1900s] (Aus. Und.) to hang around railway stations looking for a chance to pick pockets or work a confidence trick.

2. [1920s] (US Und.) to rob freight trains or the passengers on subway trains.

work the stem (v.) [stem n.]

[1910s+] (US tramp) to beg on the streets; also stemwinder n., a tramp who goes begging.

work the tubs (v.) [1920s–40s] (UK Und.)

1. (also ride the tubs) to commit crimes, usu. card-sharping, on board transatlantic liners; thus tub worker n., a confidence trickster who focusses on the passengers of such boats [tub n.1 (1)].

2. to pickpocket on buses or at bus-stops [tub n.1 (9)].

work the wires (v.) [SE wires, i.e. the connections]

[late 19C] (US) to engage in political chicanery.

work with the bogies (v.) [bogey n.1 (4)]

[late 19C–1930s] to act as an informant.

In exclamations

get worked!

[20C+] (Aus.) a general excl. of dismissal or contempt.

SE in slang uses

In phrases

he wouldn’t work in an iron lung [the purpose of an iron lung is to perform the patient’s breathing for them]

[1940s+] (Aus.) a phr. said of someone who is totally lazy.

work... (v.)

see also under relevant n.

work both sides of the street (v.) (also play both ends in the middle, ...sides of the game/street, work both ends against the middle)

1. [late 19C+] to ally oneself to both sides in a dispute or division, to behave in an opportunistic manner.

2. [1960s+] (also play both sides (of the fence), shop both sides of the street, walk both sides of the street) to be a bisexual.

3. [1990s+] (US) to work exceptionally hard.

work for Street and Walker (v.) (also work for Street, Walker and Co.) [puns]

[1900s–50s] (Aus.) to be unemployed and walking the streets in search of a job.

work like a kaffir (v.) [kaffir n. (1)]

[20C+] (S.Afr.) to work very hard.

work like a nigger (v.) (also work like a black, ...Chinaman, ...nig) [nigger n.1 (1)]

[mid-19C+] (orig. US) to work very hard.

work one’s butt off (v.) (also work one’s behind off, work one’s buns off) [butt n.1 (1a); var. on work one’s arse off ]

[1960s+] (orig. US) to work very hard; also used with other verbs.

work oneself off (v.) (also work it off)

[16C+] to masturbate.

work one’s tail off (v.) (also sweat one’s tail off) [fig. use of tail n. (1)]

[1920s+] (orig. US) to work very hard; also used with other verbs.

work out

see separate entries.

work out of one’s hat (v.) [the wearing of a hat as one travels around]

[1990s+] (US) to freelance; to work independently of a specific organization.

work over (v.)

see separate entry.

work someone’s ass (off) (v.) (also work someone’s balls off)

[1950s+] to make another person work hard.

work someone’s nerves (v.) [1990s+] (US black/campus)

1. to annoy, to irritate.

2. to exert emotional pressure upon someone.

work the tear-pump (v.)

[late 19C–1900s] to burst, prob. insincerely, into tears.

work up (v.)

[mid-19C] (US) of a detective, to follow a suspect.