Letter From New York

The Con’s English

How to write a dictionary in prison.

Listen to the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

Randy Kearse wrote Street Talk, his dictionary of urban slang, over a period beginning in October 1997 and ending on Aug. 17, 2005. Eight years might seem like a long time to nurture a manuscript, but not for Kearse, who was serving a term of 13 years, six months, and two days in various federal prisons for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Prison was not a bad place to be a writer, Kearse said. There was plenty of down time and, as a lexicographer bent on chronicling the latest slang locutions, he had plenty of wisecracking muses. “Guys have nothing but time on their hands in prison,” said Kearse. “So being able to talk witty, being able to talk slick, really highlights you as an individual.” For instance, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Ind., Kearse learned that if your cellmate has gone Viking—that is, he refuses to bathe—the phrase ain’t no sharks in the water is a subtle way to convey to him that he might want to think about taking a shower. You know, when he has a moment. No rush.

Kearse self-published Street Talk shortly after his release in 2005 andlater sold it to Barricade Books, a publisher in Fort Lee, N.J., which has brought it out in a handsome new edition that spans 700 pages, from a ass of life (“a large posterior”) to zooted (“high on drugs”). The other afternoon, Kearse, who now works as a delivery man in Brooklyn, sat down over coffee to describe his unusual career trajectory. The hardest thing about assembling a slang dictionary in prison in the late 1990s, he said, was that the facilities Kearse was confined to did not offer inmates access to computers or the Internet. Every afternoon, Kearse wrote on an electric typewriter and carried his rapidly growing manuscript, which measured about 8 inches high, back and forth from the prison library to his cell. When his fellow inmates saw him with papers under his arm, they would say, “He’s going to the office.” Whenever Kearse completed a few pages he was happy with, he mailed them to a friend in Brooklyn for safekeeping. Kearse has a round face and a big, inviting laugh, and as he recounted his story, he was clearly tickled by his entrepreneurial zeal. When he began Street Talk,he did not quite know what he was writing or whom he was writing for, but he knew he wanted to have something legal to sell when he got out of prison. Slang was his most marketable commodity.

Kearse originally set out to collate and define 1,001 slang words and phrases, a nice, round number which he figured would be enough to fill a book. Today, Street Talk includes more than 10,000 words and phrases, counting variants. Kearse has a keen eye and has taken care to make fine distinctions. Bump that can mean “to cut it out,” but in another context it can mean “to turn up the volume on a song.” He says foolery means “imitation jewelry,” but foolio means “fool.” Each entry in Street Talk includes an etymology (“old school” vs. “new school”; East Coast vs. West Coast) and a list of companion phrases or variants. For example:

tore up from the floor up adj. (e. coast slang) new school
Unattractive; out of shape; haggard and unkempt; ugly. See also beat up from the feet up.

The most famous coiners of urban slang these days are rap and hip-hop artists, but during the Harlem Renaissance, the chief neologists were jazz musicians, the mainstays of the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater. Then, too, th ere were collectors of slang. Dan Burley, an African-American musician and newspaperman, jotted down some of the expressions in widest circulation and in 1944 * brought out Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive. Burley defined hep cat as “a man that knows all the answers” and sadder than a map as “terrible, sad, disgusting.” Cab Calloway, no stranger to Harlem jive, published his Hepster’s Dictionary in 1944, and more recently there have been numerous New York-based slang guides: another volume called Street Talk! from a Harlem youth center; the Dictionary of Street Communication; and New York Addict Argot New and Old, to name a few.

Over the years, the word joint has proved to be one the most flexible words in urban slang. In Dan Burley’s time, it usually meant “a club,” as in “the joint is jumping.” By 1961, Robert S. Gold, author of A Jazz Lexicon, added that joint could also mean “penis” or “marijuana cigarette.” Kearse says joint has further proliferated and includes several new definitions in Street Talk. “Say for instance you say, ‘Yo, go get my joint,’ ” Kearse said. “If you knew that trouble’s brewing, you’d go get a gun. Now, joint could also mean your girlfriend, but it’s pronounced joan. ‘Yo, that’s my little joan right there.’ ” In addition to marijuana, Kearse says joint now also refers to a kilo of cocaine. It could also indicate a favorite song (“That’s my joint playing”), an automobile (“Is that your new joint?”), or a year in prison (“He got 13 and a half joints”).

I found Street Talk so precise in its portrait of penal life—it read like a bleak, heartbreaking memoir—that I took a copy to Jesse Sheidlower, an editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary and sometime Slate contributor, for a professional opinion. As a collector of slang guides, Sheidlower told me he prefers guides from amateurs who are collecting slang from their environs rather than dictionary professionals, who often pilfer from written sources. “I’m in the minority on this,” he said. “But if I want you to get all the words for heroin that are out there, I want the ones you know. Not the ones you remember from reading Burroughs in college.”

As he flipped through Street Talk,Sheidlower explained, “One of the typical things about self-edited books of this sort is that they’ll include everything that is not standard English—slang terms, unusual pronunciations, a colloquial phrase that’s not slang. But these”—he gestured at Street Talk—”are mostly real lexical phrases. The terms in here have a particular meaning, and they’re used that way. Here’s a good one.”

[to] get a nut v. (sexual sl.) old & new school
1. to have an orgasm. (var. [to] get [one’s] nut) See also: [to] bust a nut
ex. “Females wanna get a nut too, you know.”

“With terms like this, the assumption is that they’re only male,” said Sheidlower. That Kearse had noticed female adoption of the phrase, he continued, was the kind of thing valued by dictionary professionals. Sheidlower flipped the pages.

[a] maytag n. (prison sl.) old school
1. one who washes other peoples clothes in prison out of fear or intimidation. 2. a follower; a flunky.
ex: “Ya man was my maytag in prison.” “He lookin’ for somebody to be his maytag.” “They made ‘em into a maytag.”

Sheidlower said, “That’s an insightful distinction”—one between merely being a flunky and being a flunky in a particularly demeaning way. “He omits the usage as one forced into sexual servitude, but let’s assume he omitted that on purpose rather than that he didn’t know it.” Indeed, Sheidlower was somewhat disappointed at the lack of derogatory terms, but overall, he pronounced the guide “pretty good.” He offered to submit some of Kearse’s slang words for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.

When I passed this news along to Kearse, he was selling copies of his book at a table on Church Street, between Chambers and Broadway. (Since the publication of Street Talk,Kearse has published a book called Changin’ Your Gameplan: How To Use Your Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success and started a Web site for prisoners to post journal entries.) As we chatted, he said he was struck by how slang contains a lot of sadness—Viking sounds amusing until you are forced to spend 13 and a half years sleeping next to one, maytag sounds funny until you see someone humiliated into becoming one. During his confinement, putting a meaning to these words became a way for Kearse to hold his former life at some remove and, finally, to break with it. “I guess it made me realize that wasn’t the life I wanted to live,” he told me as he sold books. “I don’t even use slang that much anymore, because I’m not into the things I used to be into.”

Correction, May 7, 2007: An earlier version of this piece misstated the publication date of Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive. It was 1944, not 1933. (Return to the corrected sentence.)