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Crime & Justice

Translating mob lingo heard at the Whitey Bulger trial

An early mug shot shows James
An early mug shot shows James "Whitey" Bulger in 1953.
Boston Police

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It was just one year ago that famed mobster Whitey Bulger was captured in his Santa Monica apartment after evading authorities for 16 years. Bulger's trial got underway last week and linguist Ben Zimmer has been keeping an ear to the salty talk of former mob men.  

List of terms used in Bulger trial:

Snitch: Someone who gives law enforcement information about the organization or individuals. 

Rat: The worst thing a mobster could be. A rat is a criminal who gets busted by the police who then testifies against other people for a plea deal. 

Rent: Money paid to someone like Whitey Bulger if you're a bookie looking to do business in the mob's territory. It is also known as a tribute. 

Shylock: Another word for loan shark, people who make illegal street loans. 

Vig: Short for vigorish, it's the fee that the bookie would charge or the interest that a loan shark would charge. 

Boiler: A stolen car

Greaser: A machine gun

Interview Highlights:

On how he became interested in the language of the Whitey Bulger trial:
"I was just looking at the tweets that were coming from the Boston Globe reporters coming from the trial, and they were talking about the testimony of these bookies who are in their 70 and 80s talking about things that happened way back when 30 or 40 years ago. It felt like such a time capsule, and it was an authentic use of these terms that we might be familiar with from movies, movies like 'The Departed.' It was a fascinating glimpse into this lingo that the mob has had in Boston."

On who was testifying during the trial:
Some of them were bookies who had to pay rent to Bulger. Paying rent means tribute, basically, so whatever money they were getting, Bulger had to get his cut. They were testifying about that. There's a whole kind of hierarchy that they were describing where the money flows upwards from the smaller bookies to the bigger bookies, and then eventually Bulger collecting his rent. So there were a lot of bookie terms coming from them, terms like Vig, which is short for vigorish, which is the fee that the bookie would charge or the interest that a loan shark would charge.

On some examples of lingo used in the trial:
"A loan shark could also be called a Shylock, which of course comes from 'The Merchant of Venice,' so they're talking about the Shylock business is slangly talking about loan sharking. So there was a lot of bookie slang. I think everybody needs a nickname of some sort if you're in the mob, for instance the booky Jimmy Katz, his nickname was Jimmy The Sniff. The reporters who were there at the courthouse learned why that was, he was constantly sniffing when he was on the witness stand.

On the tradition of mob nicknames:
"That tradition of colorful nicknames actually goes back a long way. I found this wonderful description of the crime of Boston in 1901 and the colorful figures that were involved, sometimes very small time criminals like pickpockets and so forth. One of them was called Boston Commons Slimy, then there was also Bughouse Mary and Frisky Martin, the Boston Switcher, so that whole tradition of coming up with colorful names goes way way back."