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The American Malefactor’s Dictionary: ackruffs

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– River thieves; river-pirates (obsolete by 1900).

The word is an American variant of Ark Ruffians, who rob and murder on fresh water. One of their schemes is to pick an argument with a passenger on board the vessel and use the occasion to strip the passenger, throw him or her overboard, and then plunder his or her belongings. They are considered a species of badger in the old cant sense of the word, i.e., a robber who worked near a river and would throw the bodies of his murdered victims into the water. Ark is cant for a ship, boat, or vessel and probably derives from Noah’s ark.


  • Barrère, Albert and Charles G. Leland. A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon, and Cant. [London]: The Ballantyne Press, 1889.
  • Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of the Underworld. New York: Bonanza Books, 1961.

Note: See “Cant: The Language of the Underworld” to learn more about the background of the American Malefactor’s Dictionary.

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