This week, we've been immersed in news about mobs both real and fictional, with the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini and the continuing trial of James "Whitey" Bulger.
The Sopranos gave us a primer on mob language like "clipping" a "rat." But Bulger's Winter Hill Gang and his Boston Irish cohort were the real deal. Members of Bulger's old cohort came to the witness stand and used the real-life slang of their gang days.
That caught the ear of linguist Ben Zimmer, who tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he's been fascinated by quotes from the trial.
"Hearing these senior citizens, actually, talking about misdeeds that happened 30 or 40 years ago, and describing it using these terms — it was almost like a time capsule of this amazing, colorful slang," he says.
Cameras aren't allowed in the courtroom, so there are no videos or even recordings of the trial for Zimmer to listen to. Instead, he's relied mostly on journalists' tweets, like when one local reporter joked that Bulger collected more rent than any landlord in Boston.
"If you had any bookmaking business or loan-sharking business, Bulger's gang was trying to get a piece of that," Zimmer explains. "So you had to pay your tribute, which they called rent."
Another term that came up during testimony was "vig." That's short for vigorish, a word of Yiddish and probably Russian origin.
"It's a term that bookies would use to talk about how much they would charge on a bet," Zimmer says. "Or it would be the sort of the interest perhaps that a loan shark would charge."
The testimony of former enforcer John Martorano was of particular interest to Zimmer. Though Martorano has admitted to 20 mob-related killings, he says he's not a "hitman."
"The hitman is a — that sounds to me like someone's getting paid," Martorano told 60 Minutes in 2008. "A paid contract. You could never pay me to kill anybody."
Zimmer laughs at that clip.
"It's a bit ironic that he bristles at this term 'hitman,'" he says. "[Martorano] actually collaborated with a writer named Howie Carr on telling his life story in this book that was called Hitman. He says that was only to sell books and he isn't really a hitman."
Martorano also says the word "rat" doesn't apply to him, though he's now a government witness in the Bulger trial.
"He didn't want to be accused of being a rat," Zimmer says. "He's a government witness for Whitey Bulger. Since Bulger was already an informant, that meant that Martorano himself was not a rat."
In that same 60 Minutes interview, Martorano said there was a distinction between a government witness and a rat. A witness, he said, had the courage to give testimony on the stand. On the other hand, a rat was "doing it behind your back and dropping dimes."
That quote - particularly the phrase "dropping dimes" - also piqued our interest.
"That evokes the image of putting a dime in a payphone, perhaps," Zimmer explains. "That you're calling up the authorities to rat on somebody."
All that lingo has been around for at least a century or so, Zimmer says. He points to another amusingly well-preserved artifact that has resurfaced during the Bulger trial: the colorful nicknames of the mob members.
"One of the bookmakers — Jimmy Katz — that testified was known as Jimmy the Sniff," Zimmer says. "And I think perhaps people might not have known why he was called Jimmy the Sniff until he was on the witness stand and he was constantly sniffing. And then it was suddenly obvious why he got that nickname."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
And it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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LYDEN: This week, we recalled the late actor James Gandolfini and his role as mob boss Tony Soprano, and we were re-immersed in the world of the New Jersey mob and their colorful language.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
JAMES GANDOLFINI: (as Tony Soprano) I'm going to say some bad words. You're just going to have to deal with it. You're thinking I clipped your uncle. But I didn't. Your uncle was a rat.
LYDEN: Clipping a rat, a vig, meaning money off the top, you hear them all in the movies from "The Godfather"...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GODFATHER")
JAMES CAAN: (as Sonny Corleone) What the hell is this?
RICHARD CLEMENZA: (as Clemenza) It's a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.
LYDEN: ...to "Miller's Crossing"...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MILLER'S CROSSING")
LOUIS CHARLES MOUNICOU III: (as Johnny Caspar Jr.) Bernie ain't satisfied with the honest dollar he can make off the vig. He ain't satisfied with the business I do on his book.
LYDEN: ...to "The Departed."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE," THE DEPARTED")
JACK NICHOLSON: (as Frank Costello) Well, you do know what a bookie does, don't you?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (as Billy) Yeah. It pays you.
LYDEN: Well, this week, a real mob has been in the news with the trial of former Irish kingpin Whitey Bulger. And as if the clock hadn't been turned back to the heyday of his Winter Hill Gang, mob speak has shown up in the testimonies. And that caught the ear of our friend Ben Zimmer, the linguist and columnist for The Boston Globe.
BEN ZIMMER: This was the real deal. And it was fascinating hearing these senior citizens, actually, talking about misdeeds that happened 30 or 40 years ago and describing it using these terms that - it was almost like a time capsule of this amazing colorful slang.
LYDEN: And you can really get that amongst the Boston Irish. Tell me some of the terms that caught your ear.
ZIMMER: We had a day of - or two of testimony from bookmakers. They talked about rent. That's the term that came up quite a lot. If you had any bookmaking business or loan-sharking business, Bulger's gang was trying to get a piece of that, and so you had to pay your tribute, which they called rent. But there were all sorts of other pieces of bookie slang there. For instance, loan-sharking is called the Shylock business. And Shylock, of course, is the character in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."
There are other terms - for instance, the vig. That's short for vigorish. This is a term that comes from Yiddish, actually, probably originally from Russian. And it's a term that bookies would use to talk about how much they would charge on a bet or it would be sort of the interest, perhaps, that a loan shark would charge. So that would get called the vig or the juice. And so we heard that from the bookies, and then when John Martorano, the former hitman for Whitey Bulger took the stand, then, of course, we got a lot of terms relating to killing people.
LYDEN: Yes. That is the sad business behind it all, even the screenwriters probably taking notes. But let me just play a clip. Martorano, longtime enforcer for the gang, let's listen to him talking to the TV show "60 Minutes" in 2008.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")
JOHN MARTORANO: The hitman is a - that sounds to me like somebody's getting paid a paid contract. I mean, you could never pay me to kill anybody.
ZIMMER: Well, it's a bit ironic that he bristles at this term hitman. He actually collaborated with a writer named Howie Carr on telling his life story in this book that was called "Hitman." He says that was only to sell books and that he really isn't a hitman because he says he didn't get paid, although, again, that's kind of disputed. But it's very interesting, actually, the kind of semantic games and reinterpretations that you get from somebody like Martorano with a bit of mob slang like hitman. And another term that he took issue with is the term rat.
LYDEN: Rat. Rat is - even kids know what a rat is.
ZIMMER: Right. Everybody knows a rat is an informant. But he didn't want to be accused of being a rat. He's a government witness for Whitey Bulger. Since Bulger was already an informant, that meant that Maltorano himself was not a rat.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")
MARTORANO: One's got the courage to stand on the stand, the other one's doing it behind your back and dropping dimes. How can I be ratting on a guy who's the rat for 30 years?
LYDEN: Would you explain how the not a hitman not a rat is dropping dimes? What's a dime?
ZIMMER: When he uses dropping dimes, that evokes the image of putting a dime on the payphone, perhaps, that you're calling up the authorities to rat on someone. So you're dropping a dime.
LYDEN: Ah, dropping the dime. Now, that I did not know. This language is fascinating, and it's been pretty durable.
ZIMMER: Also, the colorful nicknames go back quite a ways. So there is this 1901 book called "The World of Graft" by Josiah Flynt, and he was talking about the local thugs of Boston. And his main informant was nicknamed Boston Common Slimy and who was at Bughouse Mary's hangout.
And, of course, that whole tradition of colorful monikers continues to this day. One of the bookmakers - Jimmy Katz - that testified, was known as Jimmy the Sniff. And I think perhaps people might not have known why he was called Jimmy the Sniff until he was on the witness stand and he was constantly sniffing. And then it was suddenly obvious why he got that nickname.
LYDEN: Well, Ben the Wordster Zimmer, your last column today in The Boston Globe. Next week, you start with The Wall Street Journal. Congrats again, and thanks so much for being with us. Come back once more.
ZIMMER: Thanks. Always a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.