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There are two instances in the play/musical "Grease" where someone is referred to as "a neat", and I'm having trouble figuring out the meaning.

The first instance is after Danny ("Zuker") finishes describing the girl he's been romantic (and supposedly sexual) with over the summer:

SONNY: Hot stuff, huh, Zuker?

DANNY: I didn’t say that, Sonny!

DOODY: Boy, you get all the “neats!”

The second instance is about Danny telling the track coach Danny is quitting the team.

PATTY: Danny made a shamefully crass gesture and walked off the field.

ROGER: What's a shamefully crass gesture?

SONNY: He gave him "the finger!" (Guys crack up.)

ROGER: What a neat!

So, Danny "gets all the neats" and is himself "a neat".

All I can glean is that it's slang for a certain type of person, but I can't tell WHAT type of person. The first instance seems positive (like Doody would also like to get a neat), and the second instance could either be positive or negative (akin to either "what an inspiration" or "what a fool").

I'm surprised there isn't a readily-available 1950s slang entry at the top of Google search results, but all I can find are entries for "neat" as an adjective or "neat" as a noun meaning either "cattle" or "a certain type of artificial intelligence researcher", which don't seem to apply.

So, does anyone know what "a neat" is in this context?

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  • The film has a lot of distinctive slang and references, like "fanculo", an Italian expletive, refs to 50s culture like Sandra Dee, "cats, throw your mittens round your kittens", etc. BTW, Danny's surname is Zuko not Zuker.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 10, 2023 at 14:48
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    Neat = Terrific - From Grease, the movie vocabulary; quizlet.com/551929434/…
    – Gio
    Dec 10, 2023 at 14:51
  • You are wildly overthinking this, OP. It's the normal word "neat", just used in a slangy noun-like way. Nothing to it. (Note that literally every word the boys say is sarcastic, abrasive, cheeky, sardonic; it's meaningless "how it is used".)
    – Fattie
    Dec 10, 2023 at 17:39

1 Answer 1

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Urban Dictionary has a number of definitions for neat, but among them are

An expression that means something is wonderful, terrific, or cool.

Used to sarcastically describe someone or something. Basically substituting words like "idiot" or "retard".

These would appear to apply (respectively) to your two uses. It seems it's an example of a word becoming slang by changing meaning to its opposite — like wicked did in the 1920s — but the base word is already slang.

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    Though in the first sense, in modern informal speech neat is usually an adjective. Using it as a noun is more startling, which is probably a deliberate effect by the writers to make it sound dated. Dec 10, 2023 at 17:29
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    I would say the "urban dictionary" web site is incredibly not-useful for 1950s slang (or indeed 1970s screenwriting).
    – Fattie
    Dec 10, 2023 at 17:37
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    Yes, "what a neat"=what a retard. I confess I had ever heard this before.
    – Lambie
    Dec 10, 2023 at 17:37
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    Lambie, I don't think that's correct. In that era, this era, the era the screenwriting happened in, any word can be used either straight or sarcastically. (You can imagine the bespectacled "square" boy in Grease saying "wow that's neat" about a car or something, perfectly straight. But any character or real human from that era (or this) could use it in a droll, sarcastic manner.) It's a non-issue. The second quote from "urban dictionary" is pointless. Literally any positive word can be and often is used in a droll, reversed manner; especially in English.
    – Fattie
    Dec 10, 2023 at 17:45

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