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.”