When a Poke Is Still a Poke, But Fly Is No Longer Fly: The Peculiarity of Criminal Palaver

June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like any other form of language, “Criminal Jargon” evolves with time and needs translation for wide segments of the contemporary population. Today, we’ll take a “then and now” look at this most colorful subset of the English language.

Here’s a bit of today’s gangsta slang translated for your edification, courtesy of the artist, Big L, from his album, The Big Picture; the song, “Ebonics.”

Yo, pay attention
And listen real closely how I break this slang shit down

Check it, my weed smoke is my lye
A ki of coke is a pie
When I’m lifted, I’m high
With new clothes on, I’m fly
Cars is whips and sneakers is kicks
Money is chips, movies is flicks
Also, cribs is homes, jacks is pay phones
Cocaine is nose candy, cigarettes is bones
A radio is a box, a razor blade is a ox
Fat diamonds is rocks and jakes is cop
And if you got rubbed, you got stuck
You got shot, you got bucked
And if you got double-crossed, you got fucked
Your bankroll is your poke, a choke hold is a yoke
A kite is a note, a con is a okey doke
And if you got punched that mean you got snuffed
To clean is to buff, a bull scare is a strong bluff
I know you like the way I’m freakin’ it
I talk with slang and I’ma never stop speakin’ it

Chorus: repeat (2X)

“Speak with criminal slang” -Nas
That’s just the way that I talk, yo
“Vocabulary spills, I’m ill” -Nas

Yo, yo
A burglary is a jook, a woof’s a crook
Mobb Deep already explained the meanin’ of shook
If you caught a felony, you caught a F
If you got killed, you got left
If you got the dragon, you got bad breath
If you 730, that mean you crazy
Hit me on the hip means page me
Angel dust is sherm, if you got AIDS, you got the germ
If a chick gave you a disease, then you got burned
Max mean to relax, guns and pistols is gats
Condoms is hats, critters is crac… ad nauseum.

Now, here’s a taste of criminal jargon, 1882-style, as explained that August in the Austin Statesman, some of which has survived to this day. You be the judge of which epoch of criminal jargon  is more stylin’.

The Peculiarity of Criminal’s Palaver.
A man must be pretty well posted to understand the drift of what has become the current vernacular of the hardened criminals and “bad citizens.” Even in a city the size of Austin, the “vags” are not long in “catching on” to the latest out. We give some examples, as for instance, a cell is a “drum,” keys are “screws,” lights of any kind from a gas jet to an electric light are “glims,” and a bed is a “doss.” When a man is arrested, he is simply “pulled.” A prisoner is a “con,” which appears to be an abbreviation of the word, convict. A saloon is a “boozing ken,” and a well-dressed man is “swell cove.” A corpse is a “stiff,” and following analogy, a coffin is a “stiff box.” Strangely enough, the word stiff is also used in speaking of a message, a letter, or a note. For instance, if a criminal succeeds in smuggling a note out of jail, he is said to be “sneaking a stiff.” The victim of confidence operation is spoken of as a “bloke,” and, therefore, a “fly bloke” is one who, having been “played” for a fool, suddenly turns out to be rather smart. The word “cat” is often used as an adjective as a “cat restaurant” or a “cathouse,” the latter meaning a house of ill-fame and the former a restaurant where loose women cat.

In wider application of the term, “cat” is applied generally to women, though it is restricted among the more aesthetic criminals to loose women. A blow of the fist or club is a “slug,” a loaf of bread is a “dummy,” and the end of an unfinished cigar is a “snipe.” Small boys who gather cigar stumps are called “snipe-hunters,” a term also applied to an objectionable person to indicate that he is very low or degraded. The act of stealing is called “swiping,” and, as a kerchief is called a “wipe,” stealing a kerchief is called “swiping a wipe.” A newspaper is called a “giveaway,” a police officer as everybody knows a “cop,” or a “peeler,” and, as is equally well known, captured plunder is called “swag.” A safe-breaker is now called a “gopher-cracker,” and if a criminal desired to express the idea that a safe-robber had been sent to San Quentin, he would say, “A gopher-cracker has gone up the bean ranch.” Handcuffs are of course called “bracelets,” a thief is a “crook,” and the jail is the “jug,” and coffee is called “bootleg,” though for what earthly reason we cannot understand. A pickpocket is a “dip,” and a purse a “poke.” Therefore, if a man steals a purse from a pocket, he is said to “dip a poke.” Shadowing a man is “piping him,” and hence, if you desire to call attention to a neatly dressed man on the street, you say, “Pipe the guy.” A pistol is called a “pop,” which is peculiarly appropriate, a knife is a “shov,” and serving out a sentence in jail is “doing time.” If Jimmy the Joker had been sent to San Quentin, he would be “doing time at the bean ranch.” A doctor has always been called a “sawbones,” and a hospital for the wounded a “slaughter house.”

A friend is called a “pall” or a “cove,” and a “rum cove” would be a smart and true friend. Clothing is called “togs,” and an overcoat is an “overtog.” Shoes or boots are “stamps,” a soft hat is a “caddie,” a stiff hat is a “dicer.” Shaking dice is “rattling the bones,” to deceive anyone is to give him a “fill” or a “gaff,” and if a hoodlum should remark, “I gave the blue belly a fill,” he would probably mean that he had succeeded in deceiving a police officer. A watch is called a “super,” a chain “slang,” and a diamond a “spark.” If a man should “swipe a spark,” he would steal a diamond pin and if he “collared a super and a slang,” he would have snatched a watch and a chain. A “rum cove might swipe a wipe, collar a super, give a blue-belly a fill, and yet get jugged and finally be compelled to do time at the bean ranch,” but if any one should relate the story to you in that language you would be more able to understand him that you would if he asked you for a “dummy,” a cup of “bootleg,” and a “doss,” in which word there is no clew to his meaning.


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