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WORDS

32 Legit Words from the ‘Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary’

Meg Boeni
Don't call her a singer—call her a canary.
Don't call her a singer—call her a canary. / PM Images/Stone/Getty Images (canaries), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)
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Long before the uncool could quietly search for the meaning of baffling slang on Urban Dictionary, they could pay 25 cents for a booklet that promised to teach the “hep” dialect of youth. Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary, published in 1945 at the height of the swing and jive eras, defined slang largely created in and by Black communities for wannabe hep gees. Here are a few swellelegant words and phrases from the dictionary, some of which are still around—and some of which have fallen out of fashion. (If you plan to click through the dictionary itself, be aware that it contains slang for words and phrases now considered slurs.)

1. Advance the spark: to prepare.

2. Apron: the bartender.

3. Airbags: the lungs.

4. Backcap: “an answer.”

5. Barkers: a pair of shoes.

6. Bucket from Nantucket: someone who drinks a lot.

7. Butter: insincerity; B.S.

8. Buzzsaw: a person who likes to gossip.

9. Canary: a female vocalist.

10. Clambake: a jive music session.

11. Dead pigeon: a boring person.

12. Dreambox: the head. (Sheets, meanwhile, were simplye dreamers.)

13. Exodust: to flee, make tracks, beat a retreat.

14. Flip the grip: to shake hands.

15. Fried: surpassingly drunk.

16. Got your boots on: “hep to the jive.”

17. Hep to: “well-informed.” Other hep phrases include hepcat (“one who knows what it’s all about”) and hep gee (“one in the know”).

18. Hunk of lead: a doughnut.

19. Hotsy totsy: “under control.”

20. Idea pot: “the head.”

21. In and outer: a door.

22. Legit: “the real thing.”

23. Lothario from Ontario: a “fast worker” or charmer.

24. Murder: “to reach perfection.”

25. Plungeroo: a person obsessed with playing pin-ball (which was illegal in some places when the Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary was published).

26. Scratch: folding or paper money.

27. Side arms: cream and sugar. An example of “G.I. Jive” or military slang.

28. Storked: expecting a “blessed event”; pregnant.

29. Swellelegant: wonderful, marvelous. 

30. Wigglers: the fingers. (You could also call them forks.)

31. Yak: a loud laugh.

32. Zowie: “exclamation of approval.”

A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2022.

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