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"I'm one of the Sole Sanhedrims and Ostensible Hooplas of the Inner Pulpit," says I. "The lame talk and the blind rubber whenever I make a pass at 'em. I am a medium, a coloratura hypnotist and a spirituous control."
-- O. Henry, "Jeff Peters as a Personal Magnet"

It appears that the word rubber is used as a verb in this sentence. And as far as I know in this context it is intended to mean "to [regain the ability to] move/walk/limp/etc." and so on. But searching through the online dictionaries I have not been able to find a fitting definition for the verb to rubber.

Is this some kind of beginning-of-the-century American slang that never made it into "official" dictionaries? Or am I misinterpreting its usage?

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    It's not clear that "rubber" is being used as a verb. "Talk" isn't, in the above quote. – Hot Licks May 21 at 23:34
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    @Hot Licks: What made conclude that "talk" is not a verb in the quote? – AnT May 21 at 23:49
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    @Hot Licks: Well, formally yes, but not really. The intended meaning of this sentence is "The lame [begin to] talk and the blind [begin to] rubber whenever I make a pass at 'em". "The lame" refers to people who limp, "the blind" refers to blind people. The phrase is deliberately crafted to include the obvious mismatch between the malady and the "healing effect" (e.g. "the lame [begin to] talk") is intentional. It is intended to be humorous from the reader's point of view (and supposed to convey condescending attitude of the fraudster towards its victims in the book's universe). – AnT May 21 at 23:59
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    @HotLicks But there is certainly room for an adverb. The lame (people) (incessantly) talk. – Phil Sweet May 21 at 23:59
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    @Hot Licks: Yes, but the protagonist does not intend to make sense. On the contrary, the fraudster actually uses the opportunity to have some fun at his victims' expense (who are supposedly not very bright). That's the whole humorous idea behind this wording. He negligently or, more likely, intentionally says "the lame talk" instead of the "the lame walk". He knows that the audience is too mesmerized by his charms to notice the error. – AnT May 22 at 0:03
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The entire phrase is a nonsensical piece of wordplay

"The lame walk and the blind see" is a well known biblical phrase, said by Jesus to indicate his holiness. The phrase is corrupted here into nonsense, in keeping with the nonsense religious position he claims immediately before it, and the nonsense powers he claims after it.

"The lame talk" makes no sense as a sign of holiness, and "lame talk" is a well known (noun) phrase meaning idle chatter (probably more so at the time of writing) Likewise "blind rubber" doesn't make sense as a subject-verb pair, but would have been well known as meaning a rubber seal that closes off a hole. This is the sort of joke O. Henry was known for. As AnT says, the protagonist of the story frequently makes good-sounding nonsense statements.

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    Not sure what you are trying to say here. The "the lame walk and the blind see" phrase you quoted (and quite appropriately at that) uses walk and see as verbs. The O.Henry's sentence in intended to have the same structure, meaning that talk and rubber are used as verbs. And yes, everybody understands that there's an obvious mismatch in this sentence. However, the intent of the first part ("the lame talk") is clear. It is nonsensical, but not gibberish. But the second part ("the blind rubber") is not clear. Do you mean that this second part is intended to be a complete gibberish? – AnT May 22 at 2:00
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    Yes, but not appropriate verbs, and in the case of 'rubber' not a real one. Please don't make me explain the joke any more. – DJClayworth May 22 at 2:01
  • The verb talk is indeed not appropriate (it is humorously mismatched on purpose), but it comes from the proper general category: a form of recovery from some malady. I assume that the verb rubber was chosen in accordance with the same principle: humorously mismatched, but still from the proper general category (also recovery from another malady). Was it not? – AnT May 22 at 2:06
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    If I may suggest a modern equivalent "This music video will make your ear bud and your eye pod." – DJClayworth May 22 at 2:09
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While both of the existing answers touch on relevant matters I believe they both miss the mark in terms of the intended meaning.

@frathoss cites a range of definitions including one which supports the OED definition of 'rubber' as

North American colloquial. To listen (in) on a party telephone line, or on any telephone conversation.

but declares the relevant meaning not to be that one.

@DJClayworth reminds us of the biblical phrase 'the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news' to which the phrases in the short story allude. However, I think reference to 'lame talk' and 'blind rubbers' as noun-phrases is a red herring. Search results for 'blind rubber' mostly lead to 'blind rubber grommets' where rubber is an adjective rather than a noun. Google Books hits for 'lame talk' between 1914 and 1973 primarily brings up either false positives where 'lame' and 'talk' are separated by punctuation, or the O Henry story. Other uses do occur, but they are in the minority and generally post date the 1908 publication of Jeff Peters as a Personal Magnet.

In the story, Jeff Peters is engaging in bombastic tall-talk as part of his spiel to con the Judge, he is aware as he does this that the Judge believes himself to be engaged in a 'con' to bring Jeff Peters to justice. So we can understand the whole bedside performance to be entirely theatrical. Jeff Peters isn't truly trying to sell anything because he knows that the Judge isn't really ill and that the Judge believes himself to be setting Peters up for arrest, and already knows full well that the 'healing through personal magnetism' is fake, just as Peters' bottled medicine is a mere nostrum.

So the spiel is pure performance, only intended to convince the judge that Peters is unsuspecting, and to leave him something to chew on down the line when the con has become apparent:

"'Mr. Mayor,' says I, 'the time will come soon when you'll believe that personal magnetism is a success. And you'll be sure that it succeeded in this case, too.'

So Peters is having fun with the words, using phrases that echo the New Testament but don't convey its meaning, the lame can already talk, the blind can already rubber on their neighbour's telephone conversations. As part of a sales pitch these might be claimed to create plausible deniability that the vendor can't be held responsible for the misunderstandings of his customers. But in this instance he is running a different con and what he has to sell is the idea of himself as an over-confident conman who doesn't realise he is in a trap.

So literally 'rubber' means 'listen in on other's conversations on a party line', but its function is to contribute to bolstering the Judge's belief that Peters is unaware he is being set up.

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Rubber as a verb can hold two meanings.

  1. The act of eavesdropping

1999, Los Angeles Times, "Party's Over for Rural Phone Customers in Green Mountain State," (Jan. 31, 1999): "There's a lot of nostalgia about the phone and how it was the way to get the local news," said Jane Beck of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. One way was "rubbering," or listening in on a neighbor's conversations

or the more slang:

  1. Rubbernecking (Snapping ones neck to look at something so quickly it appears to be made of rubber)

1951, J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 17: Old Sally didn't talk much, except to rave about the Lunts, because she was busy rubbering and being charming.

  • That's nice but that doesn't answer the question. If you mean that the word "rubber" is used in one of these meanings, then which one? And would you explain the meaning of the original sentence under the definition you suggest? – AnT May 21 at 23:52
  • Yes, it is using the second definition. "Take a pass" is slang for flirting or making a sexual advance. The last part of the sentence describing himself as a Coloratura, Hypnotist, and spiritual control is referring to his skills at flirting and being charismatic. He is bragging. He is so good at flirting that he makes the lame talk and the blind "Rubber" or snap their necks to take a look. The sentence is expressing irony. – frathoss May 22 at 0:00
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    No, no, no, I don't believe this is even remotely accurate. The protagonist is a small-time fraudster who claims having extraordinary healing abilities. He says that he can heal lame (limping) people and blind people. But he treats his prospective "marks" condescendingly, as dimwits. Which is why he doesn't even care to make sense when he speaks to them (or even deliberately mocks them). He says: "The lame [regain the ability to] talk and the blind [regain the ability to] rubber whenever I make [my healing] pass at 'em". That's the intended structure of the original phrase. – AnT May 22 at 0:23
  • I will admit I am not as knowledgeable of the setting of this story as you seem to be, however even in your example the second definition I explained of rubber is fitting. As your context describes the act of transforming blind people to look in ones direction to look at something that caught the eye. – frathoss May 22 at 0:35
  • Its a wordplay joke. – DJClayworth May 22 at 2:05

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