Issue: CC112
4th December 2023

Jive, study Jive

Talking the language of Harlem

All illustrations by CC

In 1938, Cab Calloway published a dictionary of words and phrases that one could hear in the music halls and on the streets of Harlem. The Hepster’s Dictionary was so popular it was revised and reprinted several times over the coming years, doubling in length by 1944, when it became the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library. Presented here are a selection of entries.

Alligator (N)— jitterbug.
Apple (N)— the big town, the main stem, Harlem.

Beat up the chops (or the gums) (V)— to talk, converse, be loquacious.
Black  (N)— night.
Blew their wigs  (ADJ)— excited with enthusiasm, gone crazy.
Blip  (N)— something very good. Ex.—“That’s a blip”; “She’s a blip.”
Bright  (N)— day.
Bring down  ((1) n (2) v)— (1) something depressing. Ex.—“That’s a bring down.” (2) Ex.—“That brings me down.”
Bust your conk  (V)— apply yourself diligently, break your neck.

Cat  (N)— musician in swing band.
Chime (N)— hour. Ex.—“I got in at six chimes.”
Clambake  (N)— ad lib session, every man for himself, a jam session not in the groove.
Cogs  (N)— sun glasses.
Come again (V)— try it over, do better than you are doing, I don’t understand you.
Corny  (ADJ)— old-fashioned, stale.
Creeps out like the shadow (V)— “comes on,” but in smooth, suave, sophisticated manner.
Crumb crushers  (N)— teeth.
Cut out  (V)— to leave, to depart. Ex.—“It’s time to cut out”; “I cut out from the joint in early bright.”

Dig (V)— (1) meet. Ex.—“I’ll plant you now and dig you later.” (2) look, see. Ex.—“Dig the chick on your left duke.” (3) comprehend, understand. Ex.—“Do you dig this jive?”
Drape (N)— suit of clothes, dress, costume.

Foxy  (V)— shrewd.
Fraughty issue  (N)— a very sad message, a deplorable state of affairs.
Freeby  (N)— no charge, gratis. Ex.—“The meal was a freeby.”
Frolic pad  (N)— place of entertainment, theater, nightclub.
Fruiting  (V)— fickle, fooling around with no particular object.

Gammin’  (ADJ)— showing off, flirtatious.
Gimme some skin  (V)— shake hands.
Got your boots on— you know what it is all about, you are a hep cat, you are wise.
Gravy  (N)— profits.
Grease  (V)— to eat.
Ground grippers  (N)— new shoes.
Guzzlin’ foam  (V)— drinking beer.

Hep cat  (N)— a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive.

Icky  (N)— one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive.
Igg  (V)— to ignore someone. Ex.—“Don’t igg me!”

Jelly  (N)— anything free, on the house.
Jitterbug (N)— a swing fan.

Kill me  (V)— show me a good time, send me.
Killer-diller  (N)— a great thrill.
Knock  (V)— give. Ex.—“Knock me a kiss.”

Lamp (v)— To see, to look at.
Lay some iron  (V)— to tap dance. Ex.—“Jack, you really laid some iron that last show!”
Lay your racket  (V)— to jive, to sell an idea, to promote a proposition.
Licks  (N)— hot musical phrases.
Lock up— to acquire something exclusively. Ex.—“He’s got that chick locked up”; “I’m gonna lock up that deal.”

Mash me a fin  (command)— Give me $5.
Melted out  (ADJ)— broke.
Mess  (N)— something good. Ex.—“That last drink was a mess.”
Mezz  (N)— anything supreme, genuine. Ex.—“This is really the mezz.”
Mitt pounding  (N)— applause.
Moo juice  (N)— milk.

Neigho, pops— Nothing doing, pal.
Nod  (N)— sleep. Ex.—“I think I’l cop a nod.”

Off the cob  (ADJ)— corny, out of date.
Out of the world  (ADJ)— perfect rendition. Ex.—“That sax chorus was out of the world.”

Pounders  (N)— policemen.

Ready (ADJ)— 100 per cent in every way. Ex.—“That fried chicken was ready.”
Righteous  (ADJ)— splendid, okay. Ex.—“That was a righteous queen I dug you with last black.”
Rug cutter  (N)— a very good dancer, an active jitterbug.

Sad  (ADJ)— very bad. Ex.—“That was the saddest meal I ever collared.”
Salty  (ADJ)— angry, ill-tempered.
Sky piece  (N)— hat.
Slide your jib  (V)— to talk freely.
Snatcher  (N)— detective.
Solid  (ADJ)— great, swell, okay.
Spoutin’  (V)— talking too much.

Take it slow  (v)— be careful.
The man  (N)— the law.
Threads  (N)— suit, dress or costume (see drape; dry-goods).
Togged to the bricks— dressed to kill, from head to toe.
Trilly  (V)— to leave, to depart. Ex.—“Well, I guess I’ll trilly.”
Truck  (V)— to go somewhere. Ex.—“I think I’ll truck on down to the ginmill (bar).”
Twister to the slammer  (N)— the key to the door.

Whipped up  (ADJ)— worn out, exhausted, beat for your everything.

Yarddog  (N)— uncouth, badly attired, unattractive male or female.
Yeah, man— an exclamation of assent.

Zoot  (ADJ)— exaggerated.

Cab Calloway as the walrus in Minnie the Moocher (1933)

Cab was the 1st African American to…

Sell 1 million copies of a single (Minnie the Moocher, 1931)

Appear in a cartoon* (Minnie the Moocher, 1933)

Publish a dictionary (The Hepster’s Dictionary, 1938)

Have a nationally syndicated radio show (The Cab Calloway Quizzicale, 1941)

*Whilst Minnie the Moocher’s ghostly walrus wasn’t technically an African American character, it was the embodiment of Cab. Max Fleischer used his rotoscope invention to ‘trace’ footage of Cab dancing, an innovation that would change animation forever. The original footage topped and tailed the cartoon leaving the audiences in no doubt as to who was playing the walrus.

Last year, a three-year research project was announced by Oxford Languages (publisher of the OED) and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, with the aim of compiling the first Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE). With a vast range of Black discourse being studied, including Twitter, song lyrics and slave narratives, the dictionaries of Cab Calloway and Dan Burley will no doubt be important sources.

“Jive is a language in motion. It supplies the answer to the hunger for the unusual, the exotic and the picturesque in speech. It is a medium of escape, a safety valve for people pressed against the wall for centuries, deprived of the advantages of complete social, economic, moral and intellectual freedom. It is an inarticulate protest of a people given half a loaf of bread and then dared to eat it; a people continually fooled and bewildered by the mirage of a better and fuller life. Jive is a defence mechanism, a method of deriving pleasure from something the uninitiated cannot understand. It is the same means of escape that brought into being the spirituals as sung by American slaves; the blues songs of protest that bubble in the breasts of black men and women believed by their fellow white countrymen to have been born to be menials, to be wards of a nation, even though they are tagged with a whimsical designation as belonging to the body politic. Jive provides a medium of expression universal in its appeal. Its terms have quality, sturdiness, rhythm and descriptive impact. It is language made vivid, vital and dynamic.”

Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, 1944

“Black people take language and ‘wrap it around’ themselves. They turn words inside out.

We are endlessly inventive with language, and we had to be. We had to develop what literary scholars call double-voiced discourse. We had to learn to speak the master’s language, then you had to learn to speak under the masters so that you could have a coded way of speaking English that would allow you to voice your feelings without being killed, whipped or – worse-case scenario – without being lynched.”

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor in chief of the ODAAE
(New York Times, 23rd May 2023).