Skip to main content

What’s On The Rail For The Lizard?

June 2024
1min read

Juba to Jive
A Dictionary of African-
American Slang

edited by Clarence Major, Penguin, 548 pages, $14.95 soft cover . CODE: PEN-3

Clarence Major, a novelist and poet, published his original Dictionary of Afro-American Slang in 1970; the new volume, three times as long, jumps with every kind of speech invention—funny, poetic, profane—from the 1600s ( juke ) to the 1990s ( banda ). No solemn theory of black’English is offered or needed; the book simply reveals one of the richest sides of the American language in action over three centuries.

Words like juke or jazz began as sexual terms. Major doesn’t hope to trace exactly how they evolved, but he does roughly date and catalogue most of the entries by their slanging community of origin: DCU (drug culture use), JBWU (jazz and blues world use), SCU (Southern city use), SRU (Southern rural use), WCU (West Coast use), PPU (pimp and prostitute use), etc. A moldy fig is a forties and fifties JBWU term for “a musician who rejects the new jazz in favor of the older forms.” Jazz players’ warm-ups were frisking the whiskers in the swing era, and speak softly and carry a big stick turns out to have been an old West African expression carried home by Teddy Roosevelt.

The book also offers a healthy number of 1970s phrases, including fried, dyed, and to the side for tinted, straightened hair. Today’s black slang does not come across as any raunchier or less creative than that of generations past. And the current hip-hop and rap terms the lexicographer includes gain a kind of cultural prestige by association.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.