Language lessons across the USA and Canada

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Hep to the Step, Hep to the Lingo: What is Jive?

Language can define a generation; just look at the effect the internet, with sites like Tumblr, Vine, and Reddit, has had on the way we speak today. Groovy vernacular was common in the 60s, while the 80s was rad,  perhaps even tubular. What about the age of jazz during the 30s and the 40s? Whaddya say, gate? Are you in the know, or are you a solid bringer-downer? Take a walk down language evolution lane and see what kind of pep you can add to your step, jive turkey.

Photo via Wikipedia

Jive? What’s that you say?

The 30s and 40s in the United States were a defining time in the US: post-Great Depression and WWII. In the midst of the ever-changing climate though, a secret language emerged out of the jazz world: Jive. Jive slang, as it is better referenced, developed in Harlem and became more widely adopted throughout the United States through to the 1940s. Jive was a twist on the word jazz, and was also known as Harlem jive, jazz jargon, and the parlance of hip.

What we know about Jive, we know primarily because of Cab Calloway. Jive was recorded and explained by legendary jazz artist Cab Calloway. An energetic and all round hep performer, Calloway was famous for his 1931 hit “Minnie the Moocher” (you might know it as ‘hi dee hi’) and his 1932 hit “I’ve got the World on a String.” A bombastic stage presence until his dying day, Calloway was a huge jazz figure in Harlem, most notable for his premier night club in Harlem,  The Cotton Club. It was the place to be to see Calloway and his orchestra perform live. In 1939, Calloway wrote the “Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive.”  A Harlem legend and resident poet Langston Hughes encouraged Dan Burley to write the “Original Handbook of Harlem Jive” in 1944 and it is these two sources we have to thank for much of our knowledge of Jive today.

Jive on in

Jive wasn’t just a language for describing jazz music and the jazz scene, but it also acted as a secret language for drug use and perhaps some more ‘unsavory’ practices. That being said, when wasn’t there a time when slang was used to talk about things that folks would rather keep between each other? Jive had that element to it as well, with terms like ‘reefer’ and ‘pot’ being initially introduced to talk about marijuana.

Now, let’s start with some Jive instruments, only fitting since the language revolves around the jazz culture:

Photo via Wikimedia

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
Violin Squeak-Box
Accordion Squeeze-Box
Tuba Foghorn

Do some of these sound familiar to you? The word skins used for drums probably sounds familiar, and you may have heard your grandparents talk about a squeeze-box as an accordion. The rest may seem a little strange or unfamilar.

How about the people?

Alligator: A devotee of jazz or swing music. Perhaps alludes to sharp-dressing with alligator leather.
G-man: Government man, especially one who arrests or harasses peaceful citizens.
Gate: Noun. Any man, usually used as a greeting. “Yo’ gate, what’s the word from the herd?”
Frail: Diminutive of “frail sister”. Also used as a noun for any hepster woman.
Hep cat: Knowledgeable person. Later, hipster.
Hoochie Coocher: Hot babe who dances laying down.
Mop: Noun for woman. Often a reference to another hepster’s girlfriend.
Vipers: refers to hep cats from the 1930s who inhaled. They frequented tea pads and smoked jive. The term vipers arose from the sssssst sound made by an inhaling pot-smoker or a snake.

And you thought hipsters were just those dudes who cruise around on fixies with man buns and beards, drinking flat whites, wearing plaid, and talking about how they really want to get back into nature, you know?

Photo via Wikimedia


Now here are some more, just for fun:

A hummer: exceptionally good. “Man, that boy is a hummer.”
Ain’t coming on that tab: won’t accept the proposition. Usually shortened to “I ain’t coming.”
Apron: the bartender.
Barkers: a pair of shoes.
Beat : tired, exhausted. “You look beat” or “I feel beat.”
Blow the top: to be overcome with emotion
Bucket from Nantucket: an individual who is a heavy drinker.
Butter: insincerity; B.S.
Canary: a female vocalist.
Cop: to get, to obtain
Corny: old-fashioned, stale.
Creeps out like the shadow: “comes on,” but in smooth, suave, sophisticated manner.
Crumb crushers: teeth.
Cubby: room, flat, home.
Cups: sleep. “I gotta catch some cups.”
Drape: a suit.
Drip: an undesirable person.
Freeby: something free, for no charge.
Frisking the whiskers:  what the cats do when they are warming up for a swing session.
Flip the grip: to shake hands.
Fried: surpassingly drunk.
Got your boots on: hep to the jive.
Line: cost, price, money.
Lock up: to acquire something exclusively
Lothario from Ontario: a fast worker or charmer.
Salty: angry, ill-tempered.
Sam got you: you’ve been drafted into the army.
Scratch: folding or paper money.
Storked: expecting a “blessed event”; pregnant.

It’s easy to see how those not hep to the jive might lose something in translation here, so let’s test your skills. Tell us in the comments what you’d do if you’re storked or how you frisk the whiskers.