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Verbal Energy

The mungo men and the bomb squad

An account of how one of the Chelsea bombs was foiled introduces a colorful bit of New York City slang.

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    Firefighters gather as heavily armed police block the area while they search for an explosive device on West 27th street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan, New York, on Sept. 17, 2016.
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It can take a village to defuse a bomb – although in the case I’m thinking of, the bomb was on West 27th Street in Manhattan. That’s Chelsea, not the Village.

Amid the coverage of several explosive devices planted in New York and New Jersey last month, allegedly by Ahmad Khan Rahami, I was intrigued by the tale of how two “mungo men” may have inadvertently defused the bomb and led to the perpetrator’s capture.

As Michael Daly related in The Daily Beast, “Had the bomber chosen a simple black or solid hued wheeled suitcase, the two men who happened by might not have even noticed it....” 

Ah, but the bag in question had a truly “eye-catching pattern.” Its colors included green and a hue a policemen described as “I don’t know, maybe puce or something.”

Surveillance footage showed how the two men walked over to the bag, unzipped it, and pulled out the pressure-cooker bomb inside, in doing so somehow disabling it. (This is not the method they teach at bomb-disposal school.) Leaving the device on the sidewalk, the pair – tentatively identified as Egyptian tourists – then made off with the spiffy suitcase.

Then another part of the village bomb squad swung into action: A woman who lives nearby noticed the pressure-cooker bomb as she walked past it. The message from all those “If you see something, say something” ads kicked in. She perhaps also remembered that her grandmother’s pressure cooker didn’t have wires sticking out of it.

In any case, she called 911. 

Police were on the scene within minutes. The device was safely removed, and it yielded evidence used to locate and arrest the suspect. 

And what are “mungo men”? I thought you’d never ask.

Barry Popik, in his Big Apple blog, says, “ ‘Mungo’ is a word used by sanitation workers to refer to things salvaged from the trash.” 

The Lexicon of Trade Jargon, a Works Progress Administration project, had a pre-1938 entry for mungo or mongo, according to lexicographer Grant Barrett. It referred “to the person who salvages discarded items, rather than the things being salvaged,” he wrote. “This term appears to be specific to New York City.”

Mungo is in many dictionaries as a textile term.

Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines it as “reclaimed wool of poor quality and very short staple.” Mr. Popik, referencing the variant mung, noted that “this has been assumed to be the source of mungo or mungo men. But no direct link has been found.”

Among the usage examples Popik cites is this 1977 passage from The New York Times, which, God bless, grants even dumpster divers the honorific “Mr.”: “Jason Martinelli’s idea of a night on the town is to jump into his mungo-picking outfit, jump into a commodious refuse bin, and just root around in there collecting ‘fantastic, free, found material’....” It’s garbage to others. But “to Mr. Martinelli and others in the city’s subculture of scavengers the term is ‘mungo.’ ”

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