Hanging out in Harlem with dead presidents and dime pieces

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The Independent Online
Planning to hang out in Harlem any time soon? Well, B, you'd better learn the slang before you end up selling wolf-tickets to someone. That would be mad bad. And we don't want you getting bucked.

Got that? "B" is a guy or friend and "selling wolf-tickets" means to insult a person. And even though that could be "mad" (very) bad, let's not exaggerate: getting "bucked" (shot) is not so likely these days.

But if you want to be really sure of your Bs, if not your Qs, in Manhattan's northern reaches you had better consult the teenagers who meet weekly at the Union Settlement, an East Harlem community centre, to share material for a planned dictionary of street slang.

They will tell you everything. Like how to talk about money correctly. Anything that comes in paper bills, rather than coins, are "dead presidents", for obvious reasons.

But if you want to speak of money in general - like you do or do not have much of it - the word is "cream". On the other hand, if you hear anyone enthusing about a "dime piece", he is not speaking about money at all, but a pretty girl.

When it is done, this will, in fact, be the second street-slang dictionary compiled at the Union Settlement. The first, published in 1991, raised so much interest that it was given a home as a permanent exhibit in the New York Public Library. So why the need for a new one, five years later?

According to Gary Duggan, assistant director at Union Settlement, as many as a third of the words that appeared in the first edition have changed or been modified.

"Either the meaning of the word has changed or the word itself has changed, because in the meantime they have become too well-known. The purpose of these words is that their meanings should be secret, especially from the adults," he said.

Take the example of "butter". The 1991 entry has it meaning the drug crack. Thus, the dictionary explains, "I went up to 15D to get some butter" means "I went up to 15D to get some crack". Now, apparently, "butter" is more commonly used to mean good.

Five years ago, "dope" was the preferred word for good but it became too obvious.

Among those helping the teenagers is Jesse Sheidlower, who is currently editing the Historical Dictionary of American Slang for Random House. A first volume, A-G, was published in 1994 and the next volume should be out next year.

He has been sitting in at the Union Settlement and is discovering a rich seam of new slang words and phrases.

Among those that have tweaked his interest are: "one-time", denoting a policeman, and "guns", for a woman's breasts. He believes he has heard both before but only in Californian contexts and many years ago. Another is "scheisty" (tight-fisted).

Some of what Mr Sheidlower hears in Harlem will also make it into the Random House dictionary. "The trick is figuring out what things are going to stick around - which are real - and which are just jokes or will quickly disappear."

By contrast, while the teenagers believed the usage of "dead presidents" was relatively new, he knows it was commonplace slang as long ago as the 1940s. The use of "B" as just a guy was quite new to him.

Lamel Clark, another of those involved in the project, also recognises that some of what seems new is old.

"Some of the slang from the 70s is being revived, like: 'Meet me in my crib'. I guess slang is like herpes," he said. "It'll subside but when it comes back it's stronger than ever."

Street talk

How to tell your Bs from your Qs:

B - a guy

Bucked - shot

Butter - good

Cream - money

Dead presidents - paper money

Dime piece - pretty girl

Guns - breasts

One time - policeman

Scheisty - tight fisted

Selling wolf tickets - insulting someone