Cab Calloway’s “Hepster Dictionary,” a 1939 Glossary of the Lingo (the “Jive”) of the Harlem Renaissance

The lists are in. By over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus, the buzz­word of 2014 was “vape.” Appar­ent­ly, that’s the verb that enables you to smoke an e‑cig. Left to its own devices, my com­put­er will still auto­cor­rect 2014’s biggest word to “cape,” but that could change.

Hope­ful­ly not.

Hope­ful­ly, 2015 will yield a buzz­word more piquant than “vape.”

With luck, a razor-wit­ted teen is already on the case, but just in case, let’s hedge our bets. Let’s go spelunk­ing in an era when buzz­words were cool, but adult…insouciant, yet sub­stan­tive.

Lead us, Cab Cal­loway!

The charis­mat­ic band­leader not only had a way with words, his love of them led him to com­pile a “Hep­ster’s Dic­tio­nary” of Harlem musi­cian slang cir­ca 1938. It fea­tured 200 expres­sions used by the “hep cats” when they talk their “jive” in the clubs on Lenox Avenue. It was also appar­ent­ly the first dic­tio­nary authored by an African-Amer­i­can.

If only every ama­teur lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er were foxy enough to set his or her def­i­n­i­tions to music, and creep them out like the shad­ow, as Cal­loway does above. The com­plete list is below.

What a blip!

By my cal­cu­la­tion, we’ve got eleven months to iden­ti­fy a choice can­di­date, res­ur­rect it, and inte­grate it into every­day speech. With luck some fine din­ner whose star is on the rise will beef our word in pub­lic, prefer­ably dur­ing a scan­dalous, much ana­lyzed per­for­mance.

It’s imma­te­r­i­al which one we pick. Gam­min’? Jeff? Hinc­ty? Fruit­ing? What­ev­er you choose, I’m in. Let’s blow their wigs.

Bust your conks in the com­ments sec­tion. I’m ready.



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

Ain’t com­ing on that tab (v.) — won’t accept the propo­si­tion. Usu­al­ly abbr. to “I ain’t com­ing.”

Alli­ga­tor (n.) — jit­ter­bug.

Apple (n.) — the big town, the main stem, Harlem.

Arm­strongs (n.) — musi­cal notes in the upper reg­is­ter, high trum­pet notes.

Bar­be­cue (n.) — the girl friend, a beau­ty

Bar­rel­house (adj.) — free and easy.

Bat­tle (n.) — a very home­ly girl, a crone.

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 it out (v.) — play it hot, empha­size the rhythym.

Beat up (adj.) — sad, uncom­pli­men­ta­ry, tired.

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

Beef (v.) — to say, to state. Ex., “He beefed to me that, etc.”

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

Black (n.) — night.

Black and tan (n.) — dark and light col­ored folks. Not col­ored and white folks as erro­neous­ly assumed.

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

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

Blow the top (v.) — to be over­come with emo­tion (delight). Ex., “You’ll blow your top when you hear this one.”

Boo­gie-woo­gie (n.) — har­mo­ny with accent­ed bass.

Boot (v.) — to give. Ex., “Boot me that glove.”

Break it up (v.) — to win applause, to stop the show.

Bree (n.) — girl.

Bright (n.) — day.

Bright­nin’ (n.) — day­break.

Bring down ((1) n. (2) v.) — (1) some­thing depress­ing. Ex., “That’s a bring down.” (2) Ex., “That brings me down.”

Bud­dy ghee (n.) — fel­low.

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

Canary (n.) — girl vocal­ist.

Capped (v.) — out­done, sur­passed.

Cat (n.) — musi­cian in swing band.

Chick (n.) — girl.

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.

Chirp (n.) — female singer.

Cogs (n.) — sun glass­es.

Col­lar (v.) — to get, to obtain, to com­pre­hend. Ex., “I got­ta col­lar me some food”; “Do you col­lar this jive?”

Come again (v.) — try it over, do bet­ter than you are doing, I don’t under­stand you.

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!”

Cop (v.) — to get, to obtain (see col­lar; knock).

Corny (adj.) — old-fash­ioned, stale.

Creeps out like the shad­ow (v.) — “comes on,” but in smooth, suave, sophis­ti­cat­ed man­ner.

Crumb crush­ers (n.) — teeth.

Cub­by (n.) — room, flat, home.

Cups (n.) — sleep. Ex., “I got­ta catch some cups.”

Cut out (v.) — to leave, to depart. Ex., “It’s time to cut out”; “I cut out from the joint in ear­ly bright.”

Cut rate (n.) — a low, cheap per­son. Ex., “Don’t play me cut rate, Jack!”

Dic­ty (adj.) — high-class, nifty, smart.

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?”

Dim (n.) — evening.

Dime note (n.) — ten-dol­lar bill.

Dog­house (n.) — bass fid­dle.

Domi (n.) — ordi­nary place to live in. Ex., “I live in a right­eous dome.”

Doss (n.) — sleep. Ex., “I’m a lit­tle beat for my doss.”

Down with it (adj.) — through with it.

Drape (n.) — suit of clothes, dress, cos­tume.

Dream­ers (n.) — bed cov­ers, blan­kets.

Dry-goods (n.) — same as drape.

Duke (n.) — hand, mitt.

Dutchess (n.) — girl.

Ear­ly black (n.) — evening

Ear­ly bright (n.) — morn­ing.

Evil (adj.) — in ill humor, in a nasty tem­per.

Fall out (v.) — to be over­come with emo­tion. Ex., “The cats fell out when he took that solo.”

Fews and two (n.) — mon­ey or cash in small quati­ty.

Final (v.) — to leave, to go home. Ex., “I finaled to my pad” (went to bed); “We copped a final” (went home).

Fine din­ner (n.) — a good-look­ing girl.

Focus (v.) — to look, to see.

Foxy (v.) — shrewd.

Frame (n.) — the body.

Fraughty issue (n.) — a very sad mes­sage, a deplorable state of affairs.

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.

Frol­ic pad (n.) — place of enter­tain­ment, the­ater, night­club.

From­by (adj.) — a frompy queen is a bat­tle or faust.

Front (n.) — a suit of clothes.

Fruit­ing (v.) — fick­le, fool­ing around with no par­tic­u­lar object.

Fry (v.) — to go to get hair straight­ened.

Gabriels (n.) — trum­pet play­ers.

Gam­min’ (adj.) — show­ing off, flir­ta­tious.

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

Gate (n.) — a male per­son (a salu­ta­tion), abbr. for “gate-mouth.”

Get in there (excla­ma­tion.) — go to work, get busy, make it hot, give all you’ve got.

Gimme some skin (v.) — shake hands.

Glims (n.) — the eyes.

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.

Gravy (n.) — prof­its.

Grease (v.) — to eat.

Groovy (adj.) — fine. Ex., “I feel groovy.”

Ground grip­pers (n.) — new shoes.

Growl (n.) — vibrant notes from a trum­pet.

Gut-buck­et (adj.) — low-down music.

Guz­zlin’ foam (v.) — drink­ing beer.

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

Hard spiel (n.) — inter­est­ing line of talk.

Have a ball (v.) — to enjoy your­self, stage a cel­e­bra­tion. Ex., “I had myself a ball last night.”

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

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

Hinc­ty (adj.) — con­ceit­ed, snooty.

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

Home-cook­ing (n.) — some­thing very din­ner (see fine din­ner).

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

Hype (n, v.) — build up for a loan, woo­ing a girl, per­sua­sive talk.

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!)

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

Jack (n.) — name for all male friends (see 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.”

Jeff (n.) — a pest, a bore, an icky.

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.

Jumped in port (v.) — arrived in town.

Kick (n.) — a pock­et. Ex., “I’ve got five bucks in my kick.”

Kill me (v.) — show me a good time, send me.

Killer-diller (n.) — a great thrill.

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

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

Lamp (v.) — to see, to look at.

Land o’darkness (n.) — Harlem.

Lane (n.) — a male, usu­al­ly a non­pro­fes­sion­al.

Latch on (v.) — grab, take hold, get wise to.

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.

Lead sheet (n.) — a top­coat.

Left raise (n.) — left side. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left raise.”

Lick­ing the chops (v.) — see frisk­ing the whiskers.

Licks (n.) — hot musi­cal phras­es.

Lily whites (n.) — bed sheets.

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 kick (n.) — the stage.

Main on the hitch (n.) — hus­band.

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

Man in gray (n.) — the post­man.

Mash me a fin (com­mand.) — Give me $5.

Mel­low (adj.) — all right, fine. Ex., “That’s mel­low, Jack.”

Melt­ed out (adj.) — broke.

Mess (n.) — some­thing good. Ex., “That last drink was a mess.”

Meter (n.) — quar­ter, twen­ty-five cents.

Mezz (n.) — any­thing supreme, gen­uine. Ex., “this is real­ly the mezz.”

Mitt pound­ing (n.) — applause.

Moo juice (n.) — milk.

Mouse (n.) — pock­et. Ex., “I’ve got a meter in the mouse.”

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

Mur­der (n.) — some­thing excel­lent or ter­rif­ic. Ex., “That’s sol­id mur­der, gate!”

Neigho, pops — Noth­ing doing, pal.

Nick­lette (n.) — auto­mat­ic phono­graph, music box.

Nick­el note (n.) — five-dol­lar bill.

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

Nod (n.) — sleep. Ex., “I think I’l cop a nod.”

Ofay (n.) — white per­son.

Off the cob (adj.) — corny, out of date.

Off-time jive (n.) — a sor­ry excuse, say­ing the wrong thing.

Orches­tra­tion (n.) — an over­coat.

Out of the world (adj.) — per­fect ren­di­tion. Ex., “That sax cho­rus was out of the world.”

Ow! — an excla­ma­tion with var­ied mean­ing. When a beau­ti­ful chick pass­es by, it’s “Ow!”; and when some­one pulls an awful pun, it’s also “Ow!”

Pad (n.) — bed.

Peck­ing (n.) — a dance intro­duced at the Cot­ton Club in 1937.

Peo­la (n.) — a light per­son, almost white.

Pigeon (n.) — a young girl.

Pops (n.) — salu­ta­tion for all males (see gate; Jack).

Pounders (n.) — police­men.

Queen (n.) — a beau­ti­ful girl.

Rank (v.) — to low­er.

Ready (adj.) — 100 per cent in every way. Ex., “That fried chick­en was ready.”

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 last black.”

Rock me (v.) — send me, kill me, move me with rhythym.

Ruff (n.) — quar­ter, twen­ty-five cents.

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

Sad (adj.) — very bad. Ex., “That was the sad­dest meal I ever col­lared.”

Sad­der than a map (adj.) — ter­ri­ble. Ex., “That man is sad­der than a map.”

Salty (adj.) — angry, ill-tem­pered.

Sam got you — you’ve been draft­ed into the army.

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

Set of sev­en brights (n.) — one week.

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

Sig­ni­fy (v.) — to declare your­self, to brag, to boast.

Skins (n.) — drums.

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

Sky piece (n.) — hat.

Slave (v.) — to work, whether ardu­ous labor or not.

Slide your jib (v.) — to talk freely.

Snatch­er (n.) — detec­tive.

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

Sol­id (adj.) — great, swell, okay.

Sound­ed off (v.) — began a pro­gram or con­ver­sa­tion.

Spoutin’ (v.) — talk­ing too much.

Square (n.) — an unhep per­son (see icky; Jeff).

Stache (v.) — to file, to hide away, to secrete.

Stand one up (v.) — to play one cheap, to assume one is a cut-rate.

To be stashed (v.) — to stand or remain.

Susie‑Q (n.) — a dance intro­duced at the Cot­ton Club in 1936.

Take it slow (v.) — be care­ful.

Take off (v.) — play a solo.

The man (n.) — the law.

Threads (n.) — suit, dress or costuem (see drape; dry-goods).

Tick (n.) — minute, moment. Ex., “I’ll dig you in a few ticks.” Also, ticks are dou­bled in account­ing time, just as mon­ey isdou­bled in giv­ing “line.” Ex., “I finaled to the pad this ear­ly bright at tick twen­ty” (I got to bed this morn­ing at ten o’clock).

Tim­ber (n.) — tooth­ipick.

To drib­ble (v.) — to stut­ter. Ex., “He talked in drib­bles.”

Togged to the bricks — dressed to kill, from head to toe.

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

Trick­er­a­tion (n.) — strut­tin’ your stuff, mug­gin’ light­ly and polite­ly.

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).”

Truck­ing (n.) — a dance intro­duced at the Cot­ton Club in 1933.

Twister to the slam­mer (n.) — the key to the door.

Two cents (n.) — two dol­lars.

Unhep (adj.) — not wise to the jive, said of an icky, a Jeff, a square.

Vine (n.) — a suit of clothes.

V‑8 (n.) — a chick who spurns com­pa­ny, is inde­pen­dent, is not amenable.

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.”

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

Wren (n.) — a chick, a queen.

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.


Gui­tar: Git Box or Bel­ly-Fid­dle

Bass: Dog­house

Drums: Suit­case, Hides, or Skins

Piano: Store­house or Ivories

Sax­o­phone: Plumb­ing or Reeds

Trom­bone: Tram or Slush-Pump

Clar­inet: Licorice Stick or Gob Stick

Xylo­phone: Wood­pile

Vibra­phone: Iron­works

Vio­lin: Squeak-Box

Accor­dion: Squeeze-Box or Groan-Box

Tuba: Foghorn

Elec­tric Organ: Spark Jiv­er

via The Art of Man­li­ness

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ori­gins of Michael Jackson’s Moon­walk: Vin­tage Footage of Cab Cal­loway, Sam­my Davis Jr., Fred Astaire & More

A 1932 Illus­trat­ed Map of Harlem’s Night Clubs: From the Cot­ton Club to the Savoy Ball­room

Duke Ellington’s Sym­pho­ny in Black, Star­ring a 19-Year-old Bil­lie Hol­i­day

Cab Calloway’s “Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary,” a 1939 Glos­sary of the Lin­go (the “Jive”) of the Harlem Renais­sance

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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