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In the movie The Sting, there is a sentence "You should've seen the rag he lit under Lonnegan!" as in the following context.

  • Okay, Henry, all clear.
  • Can you believe it? We pulled it off.
  • It's a nice con, Hickey.
  • I thought you were the feds myself when you came in.
  • No trouble, Henry.
  • Snyder went for it all the way.
  • You should've seen the rag he lit under Lonnegan!
  • Well, kid, you beat him.

The phrase "To light a rag under someone" is not in the normal dictionaries, but is explained in this forum and in this blog as an Appalachian saying. It does not seem widely used. Would native speakers understand the conversation if they watched the movie? It is at 7:28 in this YouTube excerpt.

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    I'm from the UK, and to me this sounds like a variation of "to light a fire under someone" which is a fairly common expression - and essentially means the same. So, yes. It's quite easy to guess the meaning.
    – Billy Kerr
    Aug 13, 2023 at 11:44
  • Billy Kerr, thank you for the comment. BTW, who rated the question and what is the reason for the negative score of -1 for the question? Thank you. Oct 24, 2023 at 2:38
  • @user102669 - Downvotes aren't identifiable, and often for no reason good reason. Don't forget to choose one of the answer's given below as best.
    – Billy Kerr
    Oct 24, 2023 at 6:49

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I hadn't ever heard to light a rag under someone. However, even out of context, I guessed that it was a variant of to light a fire under someone, which is a common expression meaning "something that forces another person to take action". Within the context of the movie, this seemed even more clear. So I think that, although most native speakers would not be familiar with the phrase, they would still understand its general meaning.

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  • Nate Eldredge, thank you for the comment. For non-native speaker, it is difficult to know the meaning of the idiomatic phrase unless having learned it beforehand. Sometimes, the idiom has a totally different meaning and can not be easily inferred. I didn't know the meaning of "light a fire under someone" either. Thank you. Aug 13, 2023 at 19:39
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As a native English-speaker, but one who rarely watches movies and may not be well exposed to that form of language, I must say that I understood "light a rag under" to mean get someone off his/her duff; i.e. cause him/her to not remain inactive (e.g. seated). I had never before heard that expression, though, so I must admit I had to click the link to your forum reference to verify if my intuition had been correct.

It was mostly correct. I had imagined the rag being under someone's seat rather than under someone's feet. However, the essential meaning was the same.

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  • I too understood the broad idea, but thought that 'rag' might be more of an emotional incentive, such as in lose your rag and be like a red rag to a bull. If I watched the movie, I am sure the meaning in context would be plain. Aug 12, 2023 at 22:06
  • Under the seat or under the feet? It's metaphorical – no rag was actually set alight. Aug 12, 2023 at 23:31
  • @WeatherVane Yes, of course I understood it to be metaphorical--but I was thinking more along the lines of "a kick in the seat of the pants" type of metaphor.
    – Biblasia
    Aug 13, 2023 at 2:56
  • Biblasia, Weather Vane, thank you for the comment. Since the phrase is an idiomatic expression and is not in the dictionary, I wondered if the majority of the native speaker would understand when they hear it first time in the movie. "a kick in the seat of the pants", "be like a red rag to a bull", and "lose one's rag" are all new to me. In a fast conversation like in a movie, those expressions are really hard to understand unless you them already. Thank you. Aug 13, 2023 at 19:47
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No, I do not believe most native speakers of at least US English would understand the phrase "light a rag." It is argot, jargon of the underworld. But The Sting was peppered with argot.

David Maurer, who was a professor of linguistics specializing in slang, jargon, and argot at the time, provides in The Big Con the definition of this phrase, and other terms of argot, particularly those pertaining to confidence games, as they were used in 1940, when his book was published.

Quite a few terms pertaining to grift that were used in The Sting are defined in this book, and the big-con game of "The Wire" was portrayed in the movie pretty much as it appeared in the book. So was the small-con game of "The Switch" shown at the beginning of the movie.

Some other terms from the movie explained in the book: "Up and Down Broadway," "blew him off/blow off," "braced game," "kayducer," "cold deck," "told him the tale," "boost," "quill," "boodle," "shut-out," and, of course, "sting" (which has since been corrupted in "sucker" (non-grifter) language, making it a "sucker word"). These are the ones I can think of off the top of my head; I'd wager there are more.

The book also covered the ruse in which Gondorff appears to shoot Hooker (the "Cackle-Bladder"), and the use of FBI agent Pogue to help chill the mark ("The Button"). In fact, the book frequently mentions a Charles Gondorff as a prominent inside man. Another name mentioned in the film, this one exactly as it appeared in the book, is "Limehouse Chappie."

The finger-to-nose signal J. J. gives the other members of the gang is one of several called an "office," though this particular gesture has a different meaning when described in the book. We also see that saloon-keeper Duke Boudreau is a local "fixer," and may surmise that Kid Twist has that moniker because he is a lady's man.

If you were to read the book and then watch the movie, I think you would be amazed at how many of the phrases, scenarios, and actions are described in Maurer's book.

In summary, The Sting contains many phrases that are specific to grift and cons and are not understood by most native speakers; "light a rag" is only one of several.

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    – Community Bot
    Sep 13, 2023 at 6:46
  • While interesting information, this doesn't answer whether the phrase is widely understood.
    – Chenmunka
    Sep 13, 2023 at 7:34
  • Thank you Dr. Vigg for providing detailed additional info. The cons and grift must have been rampant at that time in the American society. It is no wonder that I have a hard time following and understanding the movie. Thank you. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:41

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