For the trial of Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, which began on June 12, a rogues’ gallery of Bulger’s old associates was called upon to testify, dating back to the heyday of the Winter Hill Gang in the 1970s. As these senior citizens reminisced about assorted killings and extortion rackets, and as reporters and observers quoted their words in newspaper stories and on Twitter, it was like the trial had opened up a time capsule of old-school Boston mobspeak.
While we may be familiar with such slang from cinematic depictions like “The Departed” and “The Town,” the Bulger trial testimony is the real deal, a window into how mobsters from various ethnic backgrounds—Irish, Italian, Jewish—developed their own special Boston-accented code for communication. And it’s a code that stretches back for more than a century.
Two of the early witnesses called by the prosecution were the bookmakers Jimmy Katz, 72, and Dickie O’Brien, 84. Katz and O’Brien’s testimony was full of pungent lingo from the “shylock” business—a “shylock” being a loan shark, after the character Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The fee that the bookies would charge on a bet is the “vig” (short for “vigorish,” probably from Russian via Yiddish) or the “juice.” To share the risk on big bets, a bookie may “lay off” some of the action by making a side wager with another bookie. And if a bookie low in the pecking order comes up short, then higher-up bookies like Katz and O’Brien would provide “makeup” to cover the loss. Not paying back the “makeup” could get you hurt, they testified.
The witnesses presented a whole typology of mobsters and mobster wannabes. They mentioned “hang around guys,” who loiter on the fringes of the action; “front guys,” who provide an innocuous facade for illegal dealings; and “stand up guys” who refuse to rat out their colleagues by “rolling” or “turning over” when the authorities come calling.
Much of mobspeak repurposes common expressions as euphemisms. Charging “rent” is extorting money from business owners under the threat of violence. When someone like Bulger develops a reputation for being “very capable,” that means he is equipped to have someone killed if necessary.
Using coded language to keep illicit activities on the down low is an age-old tradition: The earliest known dictionary of English slang, published in 1699, details the cryptic speech of London’s criminal underworld, known as the “canting crew.” A couple of centuries later, American slang-watchers began compiling lexicons of shady idioms for major melting pots like Chicago, New York, and Boston.
Those three cities were the focus of a 1901 series for McClure’s Magazine called “The World of Graft.” The writer was Josiah Flynt, who had already written of his experiences with the hobo life in his book “Tramping with the Tramps.” Flynt used the hobo network to penetrate the world of small-time urban crooks, or “grafters.” In Boston, which he found still “humming” with misdeeds despite a crackdown that had moved some of the action down to Providence, he found an underworld with a distinctive vocabulary.
Flynt met up with one local thug, evocatively nicknamed “Boston Common Slimy,” whom he remembered from “Bughouse Mary’s hang-out.” Slimy told Flynt of Boston’s seamy underbelly: “There’s ’boes here, there’s thieves here, there’s fallen sisters here, an’ there’s joints what ain’t on the level, an’ that means graft.”
Slimy introduced Flynt to the world of “dips” or pickpockets, including Frisky Martin and the Boston Switcher. Such colorful monikers continue to this day. Jimmy Katz, the bookie testifying at the Bulger trial, is known as Jimmy the Sniff, and his constant sniffing on the witness stand, courtroom observers noted, left no question why. Whitey Bulger gave his own nickname to the corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, with whom he worked as an informant: “Zip,” since Bulger and Connolly shared the same ZIP code.
Some of the lingo in the Bulger trial can be found in such early sources as “Life in Sing Sing” (1904) and “Criminal Slang” (1908), a glossary compiled by Joseph M. Sullivan of the Boston Bar. For instance, “on the lam,” meaning on the run as a fugitive from justice, dates to that era. Despite the expression’s age, when Bulger’s former associate Johnny Martorano used it on the stand, the prosecuting attorney asked him to explain it for the jury.
Another term requiring explanation was “boiler,” which Martorano said meant a stolen car. According to “Hitman,” the book that Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr wrote about Martorano’s life, “boiler” was specific to the Winter Hill Gang. But it actually shows up as early as 1949 in the book “Criminal Slang” by Vincent Monteleone, a police captain who had served around the country.
Martorano bristled at one typical bit of mob slang: “hit man,” a term for a hired killer first noted in Eric Partridge’s 1963 “Dictionary of the Underworld.” Even though Martorano had collaborated with Carr on “Hitman,” he said he didn’t identify with the term, because it implied that he was paid for killings on a contract basis. He also claimed he didn’t “rat” on Connolly when he testified against him, because “you can’t rat on a rat.” (“Rat” meaning “informant” goes all the way back to 1818.) There’s no moment like the one where you’re on the witness stand, apparently, to open up ancient crimespeak to
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.