Are You Hip To That Jive?

Slang: a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.

I have always loved watching old movies and listening to old radio shows. I have always chuckled at some of the conversations and the slang of the day that is used by the characters. Just recently, a Facebook memory came up from my friend Johnny. He posted a quote from the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey: “One more peep outta you, weisenheimer, and I’ll butter your necktie.” That cracked me up!

The great Cab Calloway was introduced to me when I saw him in The Blues Brothers. In the film he does his signature song, “Minnie the Moocher.”

Back in the day, he was a band leader who wore Zoot Suits and spoke in “jive.” Today, when people think about “jive,” they think about the movie Airplane! and these two guys…

I learned something today that I was completely unaware of. In 1938, Cab wrote “Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary which is an introduction to the slang of musicians working in New York’s Harlem! I learned that Cab was not only a great singer, musician and actor – he was also an author. According to Flashbak: “Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary holds the honour of being the first dictionary penned by an African-American. The book became the official reference book of jive slang in the New York Public Library. With this pioneering dictionary, anyone could get ‘hep to the jive’.”

In the 1944 Edition of the book, the forward reads:

Some six years ago I compiled the first glossary of words, expressions, and the general patois employed by musicians and entertainers in New York’s teeming Harlem. That the general public agreed with me is amply evidenced by the fact that the present issue is the sixth edition since 1938 and is the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library.

“Jive talk” is now an everyday part of the English language. Its usage is now accepted in the movies, on the stage, and in the song products of Tin Pan Alley. It is reasonable to assume that jive will find new avenues in such hitherto remote places as Australia, the South Pacific, North Africa, China, Italy, France, Sicily, and inevitably Germany and wherever our Armed Forces may serve.

I don’t want to lend the impression here that the many words contained in this edition are the figments of my imagination. They were gathered from every conceivable source. Many first saw the light of printer’s ink in Billy Rowe’s widely read column “The Notebook,” in the Pittsburgh Courier.

To the many persons who have contributed to this and the other editions, this volume is respectfully and gratefully dedicated. – Cab Calloway

Do a google search for the dictionary and you can find them for sale – at the hefty price of $4000 a piece!! Dig a little deeper and you can find some sites that list many of the terms. For your enjoyment …. and mine …. here are some of the ones that stood out to me. Notice that some of them are still in use today:

From Cab’s Jive Dictionary

A hummer (n.): exceptionally good. Ex., “Man, that boy is a hummer.”

Beat (adj.): (1) tired, exhausted. Ex., “You look beat” or “I feel beat.” (2) lacking anything. Ex, “I am beat for my cash”, “I am beat to my socks” (lacking everything).

Beat up the chops (or the gums) (v.): to talk, converse, be loquacious.

Bible (n.): the gospel truth. Ex., “It’s the bible!”

Blew their wigs (adj.): excited with enthusiasm, gone crazy.

Blip (n.): something very good. Ex., “That’s a blip”; “She’s a blip.”

Bust your conk (v.): apply yourself diligently, break your neck.

Canary (n.): girl vocalist.

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.

Comes on like gangbusters (or like test pilot) (v.): plays, sings, or dances in a terrific manner, par excellence in any department. Sometimes abbr. to “That singer really comes on!”

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 (or Dry Goods) (n.): suit of clothes, dress, costume.

Freeby (n.): no charge, gratis. Ex., “The meal was a freeby.”

Frisking the whiskers (v.): what the cats do when they are warming up for a swing session.

Gabriels (n.): trumpet players.

Gasser (n, adj.): sensational. Ex., “When it comes to dancing, she’s a gasser.”

Got your boots on: you know what it is all about, you are a hep cat, you are wise.

Got your glasses on: you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage.

Ground grippers (n.): new shoes.

Guzzlin’ foam (v.): drinking beer.

Hard (adj.): fine, good. Ex., “That’s a hard tie you’re wearing.”

Hep cat (n.): a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive.

Hide-beater (n.): a drummer (see skin-beater).

Hip (adj.): wise, sophisticated, anyone with boots on. Ex., “She’s a hip chick.”

Hot (adj.): musically torrid; before swing, tunes were hot or bands were hot.

In the groove (adj.): perfect, no deviation, down the alley.

Jack (n.): name for all male friends (also gate; pops).

Jam ((1)n, (2)v.): (1) improvised swing music. Ex., “That’s swell jam.” (2) to play such music. Ex., “That cat surely can jam.”

Jelly (n.): anything free, on the house.

Jitterbug (n.): a swing fan.

Jive (n.): Harlemese speech.

Joint is jumping: the place is lively, the club is leaping with fun.

Knock (v.): give. Ex., “Knock me a kiss.”

Kopasetic (adj.): absolutely okay, the tops.

Lay your racket (v.): to jive, to sell an idea, to promote a proposition.

Licks (n.): hot musical phrases.

Line (n.): cost, price, money. Ex., “What is the line on this drape” (how much does this suit cost)? “Have you got the line in the mouse” (do you have the cash in your pocket)? Also, in replying, all figures are doubled. Ex., “This drape is line forty” (this suit costs twenty dollars).

Lock up: to acquire something exclusively. Ex., “He’s got that chick locked up”; “I’m gonna lock up that deal.”

Main on the hitch (n.): husband.

Main queen (n.): favorite girl friend, sweetheart.

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.

Muggin’ (v.): making ’em laugh, putting on the jive. “Muggin’ lightly,” light staccato swing; “muggin’ heavy,” heavy staccato swing.

Nix out (v.): to eliminate, get rid of. Ex., “I nixed that chick out last week”; “I nixed my garments” (undressed).

Pigeon (n.): a young girl.

Pounders (n.): policemen.

Ride (v.): to swing, to keep perfect tempo in playing or singing.

Riff (n.): hot lick, musical phrase.

Righteous (adj.): splendid, okay. Ex., “That was a righteous queen I dug you with.”

Rug cutter (n.): a very good dancer, an active jitterbug.

Salty (adj.): angry, ill-tempered.

Send (v.): to arouse the emotions. (joyful). Ex., “That sends me!”

Sharp (adj.): neat, smart, tricky. Ex., “That hat is sharp as a tack.”

Skin-beater (n.): drummer (see hide-beater).

So help me: it’s the truth, that’s a fact.

Square (n.): an unhep person.

The man (n.): the law.

Threads (n.): suit, dress or costume (see drape; dry-goods).

Tick (n.): minute, moment. Ex., “I’ll dig you in a few ticks.” 

Too much (adj.): term of highest praise. Ex., “You are too much!”

Truck (v.): to go somewhere. Ex., “I think I’ll truck on down to the ginmill (bar).”

What’s your story?: What do you want? What have you got to say for yourself? How are tricks? What excuse can you offer? Ex., “I don’t know what his story is.”

Wrong riff: the wrong thing said or done. Ex., “You’re coming up on the wrong riff.”

Yarddog (n.): uncouth, badly attired, unattractive male or female.

Yeah, man: an exclamation of assent.

Zoot (adj.): exaggerated

Zoot suit (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.

Thanks for the music and the vocabulary lesson, Cab!