The new underground required a new linguistics. To “broom” meant to travel by air; the hipster figure of speech referred to the witch’s favored conveyance. Money was gold. Eyes meant willingness or enthusiasm. A pad was a bed, therefore someone’s room or apartment. Old jazzmen’s expressions, once in, were now out, and hopelessly dated the speaker. As root ideas they gave way to verbal improvisations, in the same way that old tunes served as armatures for bop compositions. Etymology remained reasonably straightforward. The intent was always the same: to exclude the uninitiated, to confound the square, to strengthen the inner community. Out of the world became gone, shorter and more allusive. Blow your top became flip your wig, leading to flipped, flipped out, wigged, wig and wiggy. Knocked out yielded gassed, as in an old-fashioned dentist’s chair. The verb gas gave the noun gas, a delightful experience (an evening at The Deuces, or uptown at Minton’s). Cool and dig served as verbs, adverbs, adjectives and nouns. Hipsters invented such portmanteau words as chinchy (cheap plus stingy). Like, already done to death in the mother tongue as adjective, adverb, verb, proposition and conjunction, now appeared in every other sentence. Sometimes it stood alone, a sentence in itself, followed by an implied exclamation point or question mark, or merely a dash and a raised eyebrow. If you were hip you dug (or used your imagination). The put down became the put on, a highly developed art, often so subtle that the victim was unaware that he was being put.
Dan Burley, the with-it columnist for the New York Amsterdam News, New York’s leading Negro newspaper, compiled and published The Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, a slightly fanciful lexicon of the new argot. It contained parodies of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy” and the soliloquy from Hamlet in jive (to dig, or not to dig, Jack, that is the question…”). Slim Gaillard began recording his musical versions of jive, liberally mixed with nonsense syllables, such hits as Cement Mixer (Puttie-puttie) and A-Reet-a-Voutie. Pod, more commonly pot, first appeared to describe cannabis, standard drug since jazz began in New Orleans, heir to a lengthy list of names: hay, golden leaf, cool green, gage, muggles, mezzirolls (after Chicago jazzman Milton Mezzrow), and shit.
Like the new music, the new linguistics revolved around fixed points and established ideas. Like the music, it was a language in motion, subtly changing from day to day, with ever fresh coinages and connotations, subject to common concepts and needs. Spoken quickly, inflected, it was a nearly incomprehensible dialect. Linguistically as well as musically the boppers had closed the door. The idea was to be on the inside looking out. That was the reason for all those heavily smoked glasses, defiantly worn in the darkest night club.
Ross Russell – Bird Lives