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Could you help me understand the last sentence of the following passage?

"Hey," I say, "what happened with you guys when I saw you running out of Namn's Christmas Eve?"
Arnie laughs. "The bulls was on our ass."
"Catch you?"
"Hell no, man! Friggin' bulls..."
Ding Dong laughs. "All them creeps in that store to steal from, Arnie's got to pick out a lady bull to clip!"
(Charles Perry, Portrait of a Young Man Drowning)

It is hard for me to understand the "All them creeps in that store..." part because of many slang words(?). I appreciate any comments.

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  • See this question; and creeps is a noun here.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 22, 2022 at 10:43
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    bull - 3. noun, dated A police officer, detective, or security guard. In your example the reference is almost certainly to a female store detective, not a policeman. Oct 22, 2022 at 15:18
  • What makes you think that has a general meaning? By itself, how could any such phrase mean anything? Don't you think any meaning depends on context? Oct 23, 2022 at 20:48

3 Answers 3

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According to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a creep is a sneak thief, a bull is a policeman and to clip is to steal. Therefore, the sentence means "All of those thieves in the shop that Arnie could have picked to steal from, and he had to pick a policeman!" (I'm not entirely sure whether "lady bull" means it was literally a female policeman, or possibly it's a slang term for a plainclothes policeman that I'm not aware of.)

clip (1920s) ( v ) To steal. He clips something every time he goes into a store.

creep (1910s) ( n ) A sneak thief. He was making a marginal living as a creep until the cops caught him at his trade.

bull (1850s) ( n ) A policeman. Everyone was having fun until the bulls broke it up.

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    Good job on the vocabulary.
    – Lambie
    Oct 22, 2022 at 15:07
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    creeps in the cited text obviously doesn't mean "sneak thieves". It's just marks, stiffs, rubes, boringly ordinary people that Arnie's supposed to be stealing from (not store detectives! :) Oct 22, 2022 at 15:21
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"All them creeps in that store to steal from, Arnie's got to pick out a lady bull to clip!"

Showsni did a good job on the vocabulary.

Here's the dialectal grammar of it:

Dialectal Translation:

There were all those creeps (not nice people) in that store to steal from and Arnie has got to pick out a lady bull to steal from.

Here's another example of that structure from spoken language:

  • All that cake, and Anna's got to pick the vanilla one.

  • The beginning of these sentences imply a there is/are/was/were

  • Also, the pronoun those is changed to them in this unschooled speech.

  • This "(have) got/gotta to [do something] is colloquial:

  • I told you not to drive the car but you've just got to [or gotta] go against me.

Finally, notice how: Arnie has got to pick out is contracted to: Arnie's got to pick out. This is typical in any speech. Contractions are not just formed on pronouns they are also formed with names as in this case.

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  • … and Anna picks… :-)
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2022 at 15:53
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It is surely obvious what is being said. The word 'creep' is a scornful/insulting way of anybody you despise or resent. Cambridge Dictionary off

someone who tries to make someone more important like them by being very polite and helpful in a way that is not sincere:

an unpleasant person, especially a man:

Neither of these prevent someone to use this to refer to someone who is (to the speaker) nothing more than a target for robbery: a creep. "All those creeps in that store to steal from, Arnie's got to pick a policewoman to steal from."

I am not sure about the origin of the slang word 'clip', but it sounds to me as though it goes back to calling a thief a cutpurse, in the days when money was kept in a purse attached to the belt. The usage is not covered in the online Cambridge, but Merriam Webster has a definition.

to take money from unfairly or dishonestly especially by overcharging.

The example giving is for the above use. But it is easy to see how it how it would come to be used as in the quotation.

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  • "Clip" is not in common use in that sense, as far as I know, but it survives as part of "clip joint". Oct 23, 2022 at 13:34
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    The trouble is that criminal argot does not always find its way into a dictionary. Collins also gives the 'slang' definition of the verb as "to obtain (money) by deception or cheating". I would argue that the distance between that and actual larceny is not (in slang terms) much of a stretch. But yes, 'clip joint' is a good example. Some definitions of the expression are a little (dare I say?) naïve. I am sure it includes customers being relieved of money or valuables while they are otherwise engaged.
    – Tuffy
    Oct 23, 2022 at 15:55

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