“Speakeasy” Update - Speak Easy, Mate -
An Antipodal Antedating of “Speak Easy Shop”
In a recent post, I surveyed the history and etymology of the word “speakeasy,” denoting an unlicensed seller of liquor. Speakeasies are most familiar in pop-culture, as places where flappers danced and mobsters sold booze during Prohibition in the United States, in the 1920s and into the 1930s.
The word was first popularized in the United States after a widely reported crackdown on unlicensed alcohol sellers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1889. The term, “speak easy shop,” in the sense of an unlicensed alcohol vendor, appeared in print in England as early as 1844. The term, “speak softly shop,” appeared in England in 1823, but not necessarily as an unlicensed seller of alcohol. A slang dictionary defined the term as, “the house of a smuggler.”
“Speak easy,” seems to have been an Irish expression, equivalent to the more English, “speak softly;” both meaning to speak quietly. The suggestion is that an unlicensed shop is the sort of place you do not want to be heard talking about, or that the types of people who frequent them are they types of people who have things to say that they do not want others to hear.
Since posting my earlier piece, Liquor Licenses, Steelworkers and the British Navy – an Unlicensed History and Etymology of “Speakeasies,” I have identified one earlier example of the term, “speak easy shop,” from 1829. This earlier reference suggests that “speak easy shop” was an expression used by “fancy” people, in place of the more mundane, descriptive term, “private grog seller”:
Illicit Vending of Spirits.
To the Editor of the Sydney Gazette.
I am a publican residing a considerable distance in the interior, and notwithstanding the many and numberless difficulties I have to surmount in bringing spirits from Sydney, payment of license, subject to fines, Colonial regulations as to Government servants, bushrangers, &c. I feel myself most seriously annoyed in my business by what are termed private grog sellers, or, as the fancy style them, speak easy shops, who set at defiance all attempts of the Magistracy to put them down.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, September 15, 1829 page 3 (the same letter was reprinted in the Sydney Monitor twice, October 3, 1829 (page 4) and October 5, 1829 (page 4)).
The term, “speak easy shop,” and its use to denote unlicensed pubs or saloons, are both much older than had been known.
If the term, "speakeasy," is not from Prohibition-era New York, perhaps it is only fitting that the first boxing kangaroo may have come from Philadelphia.