After premiering on Broadway in 1950, Guys and Dolls became an instant hit, winning five 1951 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. With a score by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, the show was adapted for the big screen in 1955 and revived on Broadway three times.
The story takes place in ‘40s New York City, with its characters made up of gamblers, showgirls, and missionaries. Though based on two individual stories—"The Idylls of Miss Sarah Brown" and "Blood Pressure"—Guys and Dolls is really more a general homage to the world of the stories’ author, Damon Runyon.
Writing mostly in short stories, Runyon was known for his heightened and satirical take on New York City in the ‘30s and ‘40s. His characters, usually making their living outside of respectable circles, speak in a distinctive style called “Runyonese,” which among other things includes lots of unique and colorful slang. Loesser, Swerling, and Burrows translated his world to the stage so effectively that Guys and Dolls has become one of Runyon’s most lasting legacies.
But if you’re not the most knowledgeable about Runyon’s phraseology, never fear; we’ve got a Runyonese to English dictionary for you that will make you appreciate the humor and heart in Guys and Dolls better than ever. Want to listen along while you read? Check out the 1950 original Broadway cast album; the 1976 Broadway revival album starring Robert Guillaume, Norma Donaldson, and Ken Page; the 1992 Broadway revival album starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince, the 1995 complete score studio recording, or the 2001 50th anniversary tour album starring Maurice Hines. The ‘92 revival is embedded below from Spotify.
“Follow the Fold”
Follow the fold: The refrain of Sarah Brown’s Save-a-Soul Mission, “follow the fold” means to join the group, and specifically to live life by their ideology. “Bring into the fold” and “welcome to the fold” are both common phrases in the English lexicon, stemming from a 12th-century definition of “fold” as a flock of sheep.
“The Oldest Established”
If you’re looking for action, his firm is the spot: "Action" here refers to illegal activities that could result in making some cold, hard cash—specifically illegal gambling.
There are well-heeled shooters everywhere: “Shooters” are people who play craps, specifically rolling or throwing dice.
You have wished yourself a Scarsdale Galahad: Scarsdale is an affluent suburb of New York City, and Galahad is a literary knight in King Arthur’s court. Sky is basically saying Sarah’s ideal man is boring.
With psychosomatic symptoms difficult to endure: “Psychosomatic” describes illnesses that are caused or aggravated by emotional stress, leading Adelaide to discover her persistent cold is due to her terminal engagement to Nathan Detroit.
You can spray her wherever you figure the streptococci lurk: Streptococci are bacteria that can lead to lots of sicknesses, including strep throat.
If she’s tired of getting the fish-eye from the hotel clerk...: “Fish-eye” here describes the wide-eyed, unblinking expression of a hotel front desk clerk as they look at Adelaide, either because she’s been engaged so long or because they know that she and Nathan are unmarried and sleeping together.
You can feed her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo Fizz: Bromo-Seltzer was a fizzy antacid in the 1940s, kind of like today’s Alka-Seltzer.
When they get on a train for Niagara and she can hear church bells chime: Niagara Falls, in northwest New York, was and is a popular wedding destination, known as the Honeymoon Capital of the World.
Then they get off at Saratoga for the 14th time: Saratoga, New York, is famously home to the Saratoga Race Course, one of the oldest horse racing tracks in the country. Dating a professional gambler, Adelaide would have known it well.
A person can develop la grippe: La Grippe is an old-fashioned term for the flu, specifically the Spanish flu.
“Guys and Dolls”
What’s playing at the Roxy: The Roxy was an opulent New York City movie theatre on 50th Street between 6th and 7th avenues.
When a lazy slob takes a good steady job and he smells from Vitalis and Barbasol: Vitalis and Barbasol were and are brands of hair tonic and after shave.
“More I Can Not Wish You”
Standing there gazing at you with a sheep's eye and a lickerish tooth: This odd lyric, in which Arvide describes the way Sarah’s soulmate will look at her, has puzzled Guys and Dolls fans for ages. Writing in a biography of her father, Susan Loesser shares that the composer-lyricist wanted to pair “sheep’s eye” (ostensibly meaning wide-eyed and pure) with a word that meant “covetous.” His thesaurus took him to “lecherous,” but Loesser didn’t like the sound. He ultimately found that “licorice” and “lickerish” were archaic spellings of “lecherous,” and went with the latter. Arvide is describing Sarah’s soulmate gazing upon her with pure and just desire.
“Luck Be a Lady”
A lady doesn't wander all over the room and blow on some other guy's dice: Blowing into a closed hand with dice inside before rolling said dice is a common good-luck ritual for craps players.
Alright, already, I'm just a no-goodnik: No-goodnik is an English-Yiddish hybrid word that means a lowlife or someone who is no good.
Alright, already, it's true. So nu: Often heard as “new,” this lyric is actually the Yiddish word “nu,” which is a general word of exclamation or agreement. Nathan is basically saying “You’re right! So?”
“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”
And there I stood, and I hollered ‘someone fade me': "Fading" in non-casino gambling refers to someone putting money up against your bet, necessary when there’s no casino house to bet against.
“Marry the Man Today”
At Wanamaker's and Saks and Klein's a lesson I’ve been taught…: Saks of course still exists, but Wanamaker’s and S. Klein on the Square were other department stores of the day.
Reader’s Digest, Guy Lombardo, Rogers Peet, Golf, Galoshes, Ovaltine: Adelaide and Sarah are brainstorming nicer and more wholesome interests to introduce to Nathan and Sky to reform them. Guy Lombardo was a popular easy listening band leader. Rogers Peet was a men’s clothing company that existed until the mid-1980s, best known now for inventing tags with fabric information, price tags, and the concept of returns. Ovaltine, a milk-flavoring powder, still exists, though is not nearly as popular as it would have been when Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway.