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I would really appreciate it if someone could confirm whether I have interpreted correctly the meaning of “stiffs” in the following excerpt

“I had enough,” he said angrily. “You ain't wanted here. We told you you ain't. An' I tell ya, you got floozy idears about what us guys amounts to. You ain't got sense enough in that chicken head to even see that we ain't stiffs. S'pose you get us canned. S'pose you do. You think we'll hit the highway an' look for another lousy two-bit job like this. You don't know that we got our own ranch to go to, an' our own house.”

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)

Despite what Yahoo! answers tells me, “He's referring to the fact that they're both not dead”, I'm certain that is the wrong meaning.

Collins Dictionary provides the following definitions of the noun stiff in American English

  1. a corpse
  2. a drunken person
  3. an excessively formal or constrained person
  4. an awkward or rough person
  5. a hobo
  6. a man
  7. a person who gives a small tip or no gratuity at all

I believe that Candy, an aged and infirm handyman, is telling Curly's wife that he, Lennie (an itinerant worker) and Crooks (a stablehand) are not hobos. However, there are two definitions of hobo, neither one of which matches exactly

  1. A hobo is a person who has no home, especially one who travels from place to place and gets money by begging.
  2. A hobo is a worker, especially a farm worker, who goes from place to place in order to find work.

Lennie is an itinerant worker, a man with no fixed abode, whose dream is to settle down and live on a farm. Instead, Crooks and Candy have both lived and worked on the ranch for years. Curly's wife (she has no name in the novel) is aware that Crooks and Candy are not vagrants, but Candy uses the term stiffs as an abrasive slur.

  1. In the excerpt, does the expression stiff refer to a homeless person who begs for money or someone who is a migrant worker? Perhaps there is another meaning of this N.American slang, one which is not listed in the Collins Dictionary.

  2. Being born British, I am most familiar with the meaning of stiff being slang for a dead person. In current American English usage, can I say someone who is homeless and without work is a stiff? Can I use it instead of hobo or is it dated?

  3. How derogatory or offensive is the term today? Is stiff = tramp/migrant worker familiar among American speakers?

  • 2
    You could ask this question on the literature stack exchange. – Mirte Aug 12 '18 at 15:58
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the main question, what does stiff mean in this passage, is only answerable by interpreting the novel, including knowing about the characters and also by looking at the use of such terms as 'bindle stiffs', 'bindle bums' (found in the surrounding context) and 'stiffs' itself; and the secondary questions are reliant upon the main one. So this is off-topic because it is Lit Crit. – Arm the good guys in America Aug 13 '18 at 20:29
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    @Knotell Novels generally get a pass. Lyrics and poetry, not so much. I don't see the difference between context from a novel and context from a political speech. Sometimes, for older uses, you do need a lot of context. – Phil Sweet Aug 13 '18 at 20:41
  • Okay, then the answer is simple: since the author puts the phrases bindle bums and bindle stiffs into the same character's mouth, describing these gentlemen before the reply as quoted by the OP, (and that the character making the reply uses bindle stiffs a little later on), then the reply naturally refers to the definition of bindle/stiff (stiff being a short version of it). So one only has to read in context and look up bindlestiff in a dictionary. – Arm the good guys in America Aug 13 '18 at 20:51
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As Steinback noted in an interview, he was a bindle-stiff himself in real life. An old term used to refer migrant workers:

I was a bindle-stiff myself for quite a spell,” the author told The New York Times in 1937, employing the now archaic nickname for migrant workers. “I worked in the same country that the story is laid in.” With Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wanted to tell the story of a community largely unheralded in literature and high culture. (MentalFloss.com)

The Green’s Dictionary of Slang dates this connotation of stiff to the late 1800s:

stiff:

(a) [late 19C+] (US) a penniless man, a wastrel, a tramp, a migratory or unskilled worker.

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  • It should be noted that "stiff" is also used to mean "corpse", and there is no strong dividing line between the two meanings. – Hot Licks Aug 12 '18 at 12:01
  • @HotLicks Could you explain your comment further? In what sense is there no strong dividing line between a worker and a corpse? – Spagirl Aug 13 '18 at 10:30
  • @HotLicks ' uninspired, uninspiring drunk ' aren't included in this answer. While 'drunkard' is one meaning of 'stiff' is isn't part of user070221's answer, nor is it intrinsically linked with migratory or unskilled. I'm just trying to understand what link you see between the given definition of 'stiff' and a corpse, and where drunks come into it, not having been mentioned in the answer. – Spagirl Aug 13 '18 at 12:35
  • Don't know why the answer got a downvote. It's correct. Green's Dictionary's definition is taken from the OED, see link on lbf's answer. – Mari-Lou A Aug 13 '18 at 16:11
1

we ain't stiffs metaphor in 'Of Mice and Men' Steinbeck (1937)

“I had enough,” he said angrily. “You ain't wanted here. We told you you ain't. An' I tell ya, you got floozy idears about what us guys amounts to. You ain't got sense enough in that chicken head to even see that we ain't stiffs.

In this metaphor, that the 3 of them are 'stiffs and worthless', the insult is to the men's future dream of owning land. Be they bindle-stiffs, they are not stubborn or in-flexible of purpose. And they are not worthless and are not bindle-stiffs. They are different! The hope of owning land one day gives courage.

Stiff OED

  1. Rigid; not flexible or pliant.
  2. fig. In an unfavorable sense: Obstinate, stubborn; not amenable to reason; inflexible of purpose, steadfast, resolute, firm, constant.

and: Partridge Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English - google book

in any endeavour, a disappointing, poor performer, US

and: vocabulary.com

  1. an ordinary man; incapable of or resistant to bending

In summary, I believe your Collin's Dictionary reference # 18 is the primary sense of this discussion (man, also tramp maybe, but not hobo): an excessively formal or constrained person. I do not sense the the hobo definition - but more of the 'working stiff" ( jocularly and loosely, a man, a fellow; working stiff, an ordinary working man. slang. orig. U.S.) . Nor do I sense homeless, beggar or migrant. In current American English usage one who is homeless and without work would not be called a stiff. I do not sense the overly pejorative or ambiguity of definition in the U.S.

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  • Unfortunately, the second link in your answer is broken. Did you look up the noun form on the OED? I'm well aware that the adjective "stiff" refers to inflexibility, rigidity, and is used in the phrase "stiff upper lip" The definition of "ordinary man" does not convince me in the context of the story. – Mari-Lou A Aug 13 '18 at 15:46
  • +1 for the OED link! I'm so used to seeing entries behind a paywall, I didn't check the link. But it's free to view. Marvelous. – Mari-Lou A Aug 13 '18 at 15:55
  • (noun) 4. slang. a. A penniless man; a wastrel; a tramp; a migratory or unskilled worker. – Mari-Lou A Aug 13 '18 at 15:59
  • @Mari-LouA working on broken link – lbf Aug 13 '18 at 16:07
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What it means (to me) is that he is saying they aren't men with no prospects. They aren't losers headed down a dead end road where life takes advantage of them and they have no way out. They have options for success in life beyond those jobs they might lose. Losing those jobs won't ruin their lives. In essence, he is saying they are the masters of their fate and not at the mercy of what life and society might mete out to them. They aren't trapped like a "stiff" would be, someone unable to extricate himself from a bad situation.

Whether any of those definitions is a perfect fit is debatable, but I think the one from the Partridge dictionary is the closest in this specific context:

in any endeavour, a disappointing, poor performer

In this case, meaning a poor performer in life.

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