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The meaning and origin of the expression: A concrete overcoat

A concrete overcoat

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A concrete overcoat'?

A jocular reference to a form of coffin, alluding to a body being dumped beneath a layer of concrete.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A concrete overcoat'?

The term 'concrete overcoat' is associated in the public mind with 1920s US mobster circles. It alludes to the bodies of murder victims being buried beneath concrete buildings or roads so that they are unlikely to be discovered. The term 'Chicago overcoat', which makes a clear nod towards gangsterism, means the same thing, similarly 'putting on your cement shoes' refers to a watery grave.

This jocular, if rather darkly humorous, form of speech matches well with Prohibition era lingo like 'sleeping with the fishes', 'rubbing out', 'sending your mother some flowers' etc. However, the phrase 'concrete/cement overcoat' didn't emerge until later, despite its linguistic roots being much earlier.

Concrete overcoatSearching for 'Chicago/cement/concrete overcoats' in print references isn't as straightforward as it might be. Chicago is notoriously windy and chilly and, unsurprisingly, has been a centre for the manufacture of overcoats of since the early 1800s. Also, cement and concrete have been used as cladding for all manner of artefacts since Roman times, including forms of actual coffins and, more surprisingly, shoes. In the 1950s shoes made of cement were commonly available, although it appears that the 'cement shoes' expression that relates to murder by drowning is a later back-formation deriving from concrete overcoat etc.

Clearly the literal references to any of the above aren't what we are looking for. The first use of 'concrete overcoat' that I can find in print which refers to murder/burial is in the New Jersey newspaper the Evening Courier, July 1946:

Not all homicide committed in this town makes the front page. The fat scare headline is reserved for the tommy-gun from the limousine window, the concrete overcoat under the East River...

The first use of 'cement overcoat' that I can find is also from the 1940s, in The Tennessean newspaper, October 1946:

The nerve of that boudoir burglar, calling my wife for a date. I used to know a fellow that for $75 would give him a cement overcoat and build him into the East River Drive.

'Chicago overcoat' was used by Raymond Chandler in a private letter in 1950. He is helpful enough to point out that, although the term sounds like genuine gangster-speak, it is in fact made up"

It is very difficult for the literary man to distinguish between a genuine crook term... and an invented one (like 'Chicago overcoat' for coffin).

It appears that 'concrete overcoats', 'cement overcoats' and 'Chicago overcoats' are things that Al Capone and his associates might have said but in fact didn't.

While the gangsterreferences to violent deaths and subsequent coffins didn't start in the 1940s, as early as the 1850s in the UK coffins were referred to as 'wooden overcoats', as here in the Whitehaven News, July 1959:

"Oh, strong liquor is killin' to mankind an' az I've seen so many put on their wooden overcoat an' give up their life, it makes thiz aged form sigh heavilee."

In America in the 1940s the same reference was made, in Berrey and Van den Bark's American Thesaurus of Slang, 1942:

Be buried, measured for a new overcoat.

So, it looks as though, as is commonly believed, 'concrete overcoat' and its linguistic friends are American gangster phrases; but gangsters in books and films rather than gangsters in the streets.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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