Watch Cab Calloway Actually Perform “Mr. Hepster’s Dictionary,” His Famous Dictionary of Jazz Slang (1944)

Who’s up for a good dic­tio­nary on film?

Col­in Brown­ing, assis­tant edi­tor of The Bluff, a Loy­ola Mary­mount Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent news­pa­per, has some kopaset­ic cast­ing sug­ges­tions for a hypo­thet­i­cal fea­ture adap­ta­tion of the “Mer­ri­am-Web­ster clas­sic.”

He’s just mug­gin’, of course. Still, he seems like a young man who’s got his boots on.



In that case, you’d best acquaint your­self with the only cin­e­mat­ic dic­tio­nary adap­ta­tion we’re aware of, the Mr. Hep­cat’s Dic­tio­nary num­ber from Sen­sa­tions of 1945, above.

Musi­cal team Al Sher­man & Har­ry Tobias drew direct­ly from Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dic­tio­nary, a lex­i­con of Harlem jazz musi­cians’ slang orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1938 ’ when choos­ing terms for Cal­loway to define for a young pro­tégée, eager to be schooled in “the lin­go all the jit­ter­bugs use today.”

In between, Cal­loway, lays some iron in white tie and tails.

By the time the film came out, Cal­loway’s Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary was in its sev­enth edi­tion, and had earned its place as the offi­cial jive lan­guage ref­er­ence book of the New York Pub­lic Library.

As Cal­loway wrote in the fore­word to the sixth edi­tion:

“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.

And now to enrich our vocab­u­lar­ies…



  • 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 rhythm.
  • 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 domi.”
  • 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 quan­ti­ty.
  • 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 rhythm.
  • 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 cos­tume (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 is dou­bled 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.): tooth­pick.
  • 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.

That’s sol­id mur­der, gate!

If you’re not too beat, Jazz Night In Amer­i­ca builds on Calloway’s dic­tio­nary with some addi­tion­al vocab­u­lary in the video below. Watch it for the mean­ings of stank, ictus, swoop, and scoop, defined col­lec­tive­ly by drum­mer Ali Jack­son as the sort of col­lo­qui­alisms you use when you “don’t want every­one to know what you’re say­ing, but you want to express a point.”

Lis­ten to poet Lemn Sis­say’s BBC his­to­ry of Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dic­tio­nary here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

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

One of the Great­est Dances Sequences Ever Cap­tured on Film Gets Restored in Col­or by AI: Watch the Clas­sic Scene from Stormy Weath­er

Cab Cal­loway Stars in “Min­nie the Moocher,” a Trip­py Bet­ty Boop Car­toon That’s Ranked as the 20th Great­est Car­toon of All Time (1932)

Watch a Sur­re­al 1933 Ani­ma­tion of Snow White, Fea­tur­ing Cab Cal­loway & Bet­ty Boop: It’s Ranked as the 19th Great­est Car­toon of All Time

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • MerryMarjie says:

    Cab Cal­loway was an extra­or­di­nary enter­tain­er and a delight to watch. I’m so glad he’s still remem­bered today for his accom­plish­ments, as they were many, and the world of music appre­ci­at­ed his tal­ent. He left such a beau­ti­ful lega­cy.

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