Q From Kevin Banas, Toronto: I’ve heard the term hang a Louie (mainly from New York cabbies) for ‘turn left’, but I’ve never heard the corresponding one for ‘turn right’. Is there one?
A Whilst hang a Louie seems well recorded and quite common (though where it comes from is far from clear), there is much less agreement on what you call the opposite turn, no doubt for socio-cultural reasons beyond the remit, or indeed the understanding, of this writer.
The reference books suggest hang a Ralph or hang a Ralphie, but I wasn’t at all sure this was the current situation. So, as so often, I turned to the locals on the American Dialect Society mailing list. They listed several phrases that were known to them from various places, including hang a Ralph, but also Hang a Roscoe, hang a rooie, and hang a Richie. Several of those who replied said that they never used any such term and basically thought that the deasil turn was the boring but obvious hang a right.
The New Yorkers among them preferred hang a Ralph but even they said that hang a right was more common. A quick search on the Google database indeed showed that hang a right was the most common general form, with hang a Ralph coming in a poor second and the other two absolutely nowhere.
Those from the Boston area remarked that around there they tended to bang a Louie rather than hang one (or even just sedately take one), which was taken by the less charitable on the list as a comment on the driving habits of Bostonians. ’Nuff said.
After this piece first appeared in the newsletter, subscribers told me about several other forms known from parts of the US at various periods: hang a Reggie (Illinois and Wisconsin), hang a Rachel (Seattle), hang (or make) a Rochester (Tennessee), and hang a Roger (Miami).
If you’re doing a U-turn, incidentally, most said that a common phrase was hang a U-ie. However, lexicographer Jonathan Green wrote, “Yesterday, in a mouldering copy of Current Slang (University of Dakota, 1969) I came across hang a Ulysses for a U-turn”. Subscribers have commented that a U-turn is flip a bitch in California, Boston (and probably in other places, too). In Denver, one subscriber said, “we simply hang a left or hang a right, but we whip a U-ie. This, of course, is properly taken as a comment on the driving habits of Coloradans”. That’s nothing: in Australia, I’m told, they chuck a U-ie.
Lots of people tried to explain Louie through the different ways British and American speakers pronounce lieutenant, so linking leftie with louie. As we don’t know the real story we can’t be dogmatic about this, but it seems rather stretched as an explanation. A more plausible explanation is that it comes from the famous left hook of the boxer Joe Louis. It has also been suggested it might just be a pun on the name of the former New York state attorney general Louis Lefkowitz.
Several people told me their memory was that U-ie came first in the 1960s or thereabouts and that the other terms appeared afterwards through imitation.