Green’s Dictionary of Slang

act n.

1. (orig. US) a routine, a way of behaving, a performance.

[US]Daily Trib. (Bismarck, ND) 23 Oct. 4/1: Any kind of a deed is an ‘act,’ whether connected with the stage or not. [...] ‘Cleveland’s sprung the veto act on them again;’ ‘Langtry’s been doing the citizenship act.’.
[US]C.L. Cullen Tales of the Ex-Tanks 49: It was a sober act for the rest of my stay.
[US]B. Fisher A. Mutt in Blackbeard Compilation (1977) 121: He’ll give his wife the rush act and tear out of the joint on a dead run.
[US]R. Chandler ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ in Red Wind (1946) 87: What does your little act mean?
[US]B. Appel Power-House 19: I don’t get this brother act.
[US]D. Burley Orig. Hbk of Harlem Jive 42: This weep act, ole man, is out of this world.
[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: A-C-T. (spelled out) n. activities of greatest interest and immediacy; one’s thing.
[UK]F. Norman Dead Butler Caper 109: I’m out of a watch and I reckoned you wouldn’t mind letting me have one down to the old pals act.
[US]J. Ridley Everybody Smokes in Hell 23: I go in, take what I want, we’re gone. That simple, so save the punk act.
[UK]Guardian Guide 29 July–4 Aug. 13: I play Kirk Stans – a Casino lounge act who drinks too much.

2. (US Und.) cross-examination of a prisoner.

[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn).

In phrases

clean up one’s act (v.)

(orig. US) orig. lit. use aimed at supposedly ‘indecent' performances; to modify or improve one’s behaviour.

Dear Abby 19 Oct. [synd. col.] If you have told this person that his language offends you and he makes no effort to clean up his act, you have the right to absent tourself from his company.
[[US]St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Parade 30 Sept. 2: ‘I’ve had friends come up to me, well-intentioned folks. “Elvis,” they say, “you’ve got to clean up your act. You’ve got to stop squirmin’ like a tadpole”’].
West WI Statues Annotated 99: Defendant’s statement to his wife that ‘if you don't clean up your act, you may wind up with your throat slit,’ which was made a little over a year before wife's murder.
[US]New Yorker 59 101: And try to clean up your act by next Sunday.
[US]Current Sl. VI 3: Clean up your act! v. To stop swearing, dress nicely, and act like a lady/gentleman. (imperative).
[US](con. 1966) P. Conroy Lords of Discipline 26: You don’t deserve anything nice until you learn to clean up your act.
[US]J. Ellroy Brown’s Requiem 153: When she hit the busy Ensenada streets she cleaned up her act, slowing down and driving with restraint.
[US]S. Morgan Homeboy 49: I threw in that junkie’s hand, Loot. Cleaned up my act.
[UK]M. Manning Get Your Cock Out 92: Now that he had Dandelion he was trying to clean up his act.
disappearing act (n.)

see separate entry.

do a/an — act (v.)

to perform in a given manner; usu. combined with a specific n. or proper name, which defines the ‘act’ in question.

[UK]Wodehouse Psmith Journalist (1993) 201: It is unusual for the substitute-editor of a weekly paper to do a Captain Kidd act.
[US]H.L. Wilson Professor How Could You! 237: You doing a Rube act?
[UK]P. Cheyney Don’t Get Me Wrong (1956) 55: I start doin’ a big Sherlock Holmes act. I start a big reconstruction scene which is what the ace detective in the book always does when somethin’ happens. [Ibid.] 89: If somebody wasn’t doin’ a big shadow act on me I’d feel nervous.
do a brown (act) (v.)

(N.Z.) to act in a shy manner; to sulk.

[NZ]McGill Dict. of Kiwi Sl. 21/2: brown in phr. do a brown act shy or sulky or ashamed; eg ‘What’s wrong with Jill?’ ‘Nothin’, Miss. She does a brown for no reason, eh.’.
[NZ]McGill Reed Dict. of N.Z. Sl. [as cit. 1988].
do the — act (v.) (also play the — act)

(US) to pretend to a particular (by context) style of behaviour, to assume (often deceitfully) specific characteristics; in comb. with n., adj. or proper name.

[US]Louisiana Democrat 14 Feb. 1/6: I did the brat act again and gently murmured ‘Good evening’.
[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 31 May 6/3: A fly-miss [...] is a miss who stand stands in the grandstand and flirts with the players. Sometimes she is seen on the street and does the handkerchief act.
[Aus]Dead Bird (Sydney) 17 May 2/1: Seeing a young and beautiful maiden doing the wallflower act, our homeless one approached.
[US]Overland Monthly (CA) July 34: Doing what cavalry men call the ‘doughboy act’.
[US]H. Blossom Checkers 39: I had money, a wife and friends, and was doing the Vanderbilt act.
[US]Flynt & Walton Powers That Prey 183: Any one ’ud think that that copper had hit you with a baseball bat the way you play the baby act.
[US]‘Hugh McHugh’ Out for the Coin 56: Here was my chance to confess all and do the retreat from Moscow act.
[UK]Wodehouse Psmith in the City (1993) 100: In life it was beautiful, but now it has done the Tom Bowling act. It has gone aloft.
[NZ]Truth (Wellington) 22 May 7: She started to do the rat act, and go out when it was dark.
[US]F. Packard White Moll 305: I had to do the rough act with that gent friend of yours to stop him from crawlin’ after you.
[US]O. Strange Sudden 234: They’re doin’ the Br’er Rabbit act an’ layin’ low.
get one’s act together (v.)

(orig. US black) to calm down, to plan sensibly, to state a goal and aim for it.

[US]Cincinnati Enquirer (OH) 7 Dec. 7/1: You think we’ve got a generation gap now, just wait until this guy gets his act together.
[Can]Ottawa Citizen (Ont.) 3 June 3/4: Ottawa’s youthful promoters of ‘Get Your Act Together [...] are getting the financial resources needed to keep their LIP projectas going.
Skiing Nov. 192: If you’re a racer, at the first race of the season, there’s a calm while everyone tries to get his act together.
[US]C. McFadden Serial 15: I can’t get my act together.
[US]‘Joe Bob Briggs’ Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In 199: It’s conversations like that that allow the ugly people of America to face up to their problems and get their acts together.
[UK]C. Newland Scholar 202: I’m sayin’ we should get our act together, an’ start runnin’ t’ings in dis estate.
[Ire]P. Howard Miseducation of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly (2004) 43: I finally get my act together and get out of the sack.
[US]A. Steinberg Running the Books 113: He was finally going to get his act together.
[UK]T. Black Artefacts of the Dead [ebook] He pointed towards her as he spoke. ‘You need to get your act together [...] You need to start paying attention to your punters’.
have one’s act together (v.)

(orig. US black) to be in full control of a situation, whether emotional, social, sexual, financial etc.

[US]R. Price Blood Brothers 132: They been at it a long time an’ they pretty much had their act together.
[US]C. McFadden Serial 23: Don’t you think Carlos Castenada really has his act together.
[US]R.C. Cruz Straight Outta Compton 73: You should have had your act together.
pull a — act (v.) (also pull the — act)

to pretend to behave in a specific way, to perform a certain routine.

[US]G. Milburn ‘The Moocher’ in Hobo’s Hornbook 224: Not everyone can pull / The ancient, wet-eye mooch act / On a big and husky bull.
[US]R. Chandler Big Sleep 122: He pulls the dumb act because he thinks we wouldn’t expect him to pull the dumb play.
[US]N. Algren Man with the Golden Arm 175: Now he’s gettin’ set to pull one of his corny movie acts on me.
[Aus]Townsville Daily Bull. (Qld) 5 Mar. 4/6: He tried to pull the jimmy Clabber act on me.
[US]J. Thompson Alcoholics (1993) 58: She could have heard him coming and pulled the sick act.
[UK]G. Lambert Inside Daisy Clover (1966) 39: If she pulls this act once more, I’ll get snippy.
[US]P. Thomas Down These Mean Streets (1970) 242: The questions came real fast and I pulled a weak act.
pull an act (v.)

to put on a show with the intention of deceiving or defrauding someone.

[UK]P. Cheyney Dames Don’t Care (1960) 183: He has been pullin’ an act on Henrietta that if he don’t marry her he can make things plenty hot for her.
put on an act (v.) (also put on the act)

to show off, to talk for display, to behave insincerely.

[US]J.H. O’Hara Appointment in Samarra (1935) 235: You put on some kind of an act with Caroline, and [...] she fell for it.
[UK]M. Dickens Happy Prisoner 158: This girl’s not naturally like that. She’s putting on an act [OED].
[US]M. Spillane Long Wait (1954) 63: I’m glad I don’t know because if I did you’re just the kind of a guy who could put on an act I’d go for and make me put myself in a jam.
[Aus](con. 1944) L. Glassop Rats in New Guinea 21: The closest he ever got to acting was putting on an act about how wonderful he is.
[Ire](con. 1930s) L. Redmond Emerald Square 126: On Tuesday morning when I put on the act, Mam swallowed it.
queer someone’s act (v.) [queer v. (7)]

(US) to interfere, to spoil someone’s plans.

[US]Putnam’s Mag. 7 435: You can bet I don’t let on I ’m enjoying it any; that would queer my act.
C. Aiken ‘Rose And Murray’ Turns and Moves 2: He fears that she will someday queer his act; / Feeling her anger. He will quit her soon.
B. Matthews Vignettes of Manhattan 248: Why, the last time I was on the road she tried to queer my act.
[US]H.S. Thompson letter 2 Oct. in Proud Highway (1997) 641: Pursue him [...] and queer his act for all time.
Jon A. Jackson Go By Go [Internet] Ch. i: Ammett bought me a beer and in so many words he let me know that he wouldn’t queer my act if I didn’t queer his.

SE in slang uses

In phrases

on the act

working as an actor.

[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 30 May 6/1: Madame Ristori is still ‘on the act’ – Frisco this time is the scene of her triumphs. Her prolonged career on the stage is probably due to a passion long since developed by the Marquis del Grillo for ‘heading them’.