Harlem Slanguage.

I got an e-mail from rozele alerting me to Zora Neale Hurston’s nine-page typescript titled “Harlem Slanguage,” available online at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library site; rozele says:

as you might expect, it’s much more than a simple lexicon – there are idioms, proverbs, usage notes, illustrative citations from songs and folklore, and a full-on narrative. plus, as you’d expect, it’s funny as hell.

sadly, it’s not dated, and i don’t know my hurstonania well enough to match the address she gives to a year (but it would definitely be possible).

there are at least a few items that’ve been of interest to the hattery, including “29. GUT-BUCKET, low dive, type of music or expression from same”, which is a professional folklorist’s vote for the place coming first in the semantic development.

An item that struck my eye was this, on p. 3:

JOOKING, playing the piano, guitar, or any musical instrument in the manner of the Jooks. (pronounced like “took”) (2) dancing and “schronching” in the manner. A player may be “getting low-down” at the piano and his listeners may yell out in admiration, “Jook it, papa! Jook!”

I was surprised at the “pronounced like ‘took,'” since I would have guessed it would have a long u (as in juke joint), but no, the OED has an entry for it (from 2008):

British English /dʒʊk/, /dʒʌk/
U.S. English /dʒʊk/, /dʒək/
Caribbean English /dʒʊk/, /dʒʌk/

1. transitive. To stab, pierce, or prick; to poke or jab.
1877 Wen me see him so wid de begnet..me ting say de man da go jook me wid it. H. G. Murray, Tom Kittle’s Wake 23
1933 She came into my room and ‘jucked’ me in the side and I wake. Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica) 29 June 8/1
2003 Dem man dere, you don’t even waste bullet pon dem. (Imitating stabbing.) Just jook jook jook him till he dead. K. Kwei-Armah, Elmina’s Kitchen i. ii. 20

2. transitive. To thrust (the hips, pelvis, etc.) when dancing. Also intransitive.
1956 Jock yo waist fuh dem Tiny! Unpublished Manuscript (Ethnogr. Society Trinidad & Tobago) in L. Winer, Dictionary of English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago (2009) 471/2
1980 Lounging against the wall and sipping beers,..they watched the dancers juking and grinding to the heavy heavy rhythms. M. Thelwell, Harder they Come (1988) v. 151
2020 Anybody cyan whine and jook. @NikoyaL 22 March in twitter.com (accessed 30 May 2020)

The etymology is inconclusive but interesting:

Origin uncertain. Compare e.g. Fulfulde jukka to poke, Krio chuke to poke, prick (1845), Cameroon Pidgin English čuk-am to pierce, prick, Nigerian Pidgin English chook to pierce, prick; also Mende jɔkɔ to enter.


  1. jook/took also struck me, but i hadn’t delved into it yet – i wonder when the vowel shift happened!

    and to maybe state the obvious, the OED definition implies that a juke joint is a joint where people jook[2], making a jukebox (per wiktionary*, named for the joints) ultimately a dancing-with-the-hips-box.

    wikt adds to the etymological mix for “juke”, variously:

    [low bar] From Gullah juke, jook, joog (“wicked, disorderly”) (compare Wolof and Bambara dzug (“unsavory”))

    [stab/thrust] From Jamaican Creole jook. -> From Fula jukka. Compare Bahamian Creole jook.

    [feint] From Middle English jowken (“bend”)

    i do wonder whether the last one makes sense, though, since i think of that usage as specific to u.s. sports (especially american football), where it could be derived from the “dancing” meaning.

  2. According to
    she “lived in St. Augustine on several occasions during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.”
    It might be of interest if it could be determined to whom it was “submitted.”

  3. The Wikipedia page for JUKE JOINT, related, cites as etymology: “The term “juke” is believed to come from the Gullah word joog or jug, meaning rowdy or disorderly which itself is derived from the Wolof word dzug meaning to misconduct one’s self.” (With two references, one from Time magazine, 1940, the other from The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 2014.

  4. Linton Kwesi Johnson uses the word in Sonny’s Lettah when the protagonist starts defending his little brother against racist cops. He pronounces it /dʒʊk/:

    So mi jook one in him eye and him started fi cry
    Me thump him pon him mout and him started fi shout
    Me kick him pon him shin so him started fi spin
    Me hit him pon him chin an him drop pon a bin
    An crash
    An dead


  5. Regarding the mailing address that might indicate a date for this document: Hurston stayed in St. Augustine on several occasions, “most notably in 1927 and 1942” For what it is worth, her signature in her 1942 autobiography reproduced on that page pretty closely resembles that on the Slanguage document. Signatures do tend to change over time. So maybe “Slanguage” was compiled during her extended stay in St. Augustine in 1942. She did not return after 1943.

    Also, in 1942 Hurston published “Story in Harlem Slang” in Mercury Magazine, drawing upon “Slanguage” (a version of which was published with the story).

  6. Ah, that would seem pretty conclusive.

  7. It says “respectfully submitted”. Has it not been published?

  8. — It says “respectfully submitted”. Has it not been published?

    Apparently not. If you Google “Harlemese Slanguage” in quotation marks, all you get is the scholarly paper (my second link above) that mentions it. So Hat’s post here is giving it wider circulation that it has ever had, probably.

  9. Apparently not.
    i only came across it while poking around to try to find an entirely different manuscript of hers!

  10. A cleaner, shorter version of the glossary was published. There’s a discussion of the two versions and how Hurston used the glossary, here.

  11. I’ve heard the Chinese porridge word also pronounced rhyming with took.

  12. There’s a discussion of the two versions and how Hurston used the glossary, here.

    Interesting stuff, thanks:

    She experienced herself the transition from being a member of a predominantly oral community to being a member of a literate one when she learned to read and write in school. Yet, it was the practice of translating black vernacular speech into writing which made her notice that the act of reading also involves a translation process: dialect writing asks readers to (re)translate the literary dialect in their minds.
    She possibly recognized that the practice of creating a glossary—which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “collection of glosses; a list with explanations of abstruse, antiquated, dialectal, or technical terms; a partial dictionary” (“Glossary, n1”)—decontextualizes words and phrases from the main text and enables the practitioner to reflect on how to arrange the isolated words and phrases—for instance in an alphabetical or numbered order. She also probably recognized that the making of lists and glossaries could be useful for her endeavor of writing literary texts about her all-black community: she knew a “language” (black vernacular speech) that was unfamiliar to most readers, she could “record” the “language” in her literary works and, like an anthropologist and translator, she could attach a glossary explaining words or phrases used in the text in order to ensure a successful translation and communication process between text and reader.
    Instead of beginning with a story and then creating a glossary of terms used in the text, she establishes an inconclusive scenario: the unpublished glossary “Harlem Slanguage,” which pretends to be the result of a continuous chain of thought, suggests to the readers that it was Hurston’s starting point, that is, she first collected the terms and then wrote the short narrative “Story in Harlem Slang.” Yet, she also could have written down the carefully constructed chain of thought after or even during the process of writing the short story. My focus will be on the difference between the imaginative rendering of the train of thought in “Harlem Slanguage” and the functional, alphabetically ordered “Glossary of Harlem Slang.” Apparently Hurston explored the change from the unpublished glossary (manuscript) that “documented” the workings of her mind, which she imagined as an associative chain of thought, to the published (printed) and alphabetically ordered glossary that enabled the general reader to look up and easily find the looked-for entry.

    For the purpose of this experiment or investigation, Hurston developed a rough idea for a short story that would enable her to use as many dialect expressions as possible through a conversation between two hustlers in Harlem.

    I liked this entry, which I hadn’t noticed looking at Slanguage earlier:

    Russian—a Southern Negro up north. “Rushed up here,” hence a Russian.

  13. “that the act of reading also involves a translation process: dialect writing asks readers to (re)translate the literary dialect in their minds.”
    I’m not sure I understand this line.

  14. It’s not very clearly expressed, but I think what is meant is “dialect writing asks readers to (re)translate [from the dialect of the story to] the literary dialect in their minds.”

  15. My first problem was that the first part is about reading (with one’s eyes) and the second part is about the langauges involved (but not written texts). These two processes seem unrelated to a Russian (for we speak “literary Russian”), but for an English speaker they may be related.

    But then it turned out that it is “the literary dialect” which is getting “(re)translated”…

  16. I think literary dialect means what is also called eye dialect* or dialect spelling; so a reader would be translating from the literary dialect into either the standard or their own idiolect.

    * I continue to deprecate the use of eye dialect in this broader sense of “dialect spelling” as opposed to the narrower sense of “dialect spelling homophonous with standard spelling”.

  17. Ah, that makes sense.

  18. Oh. So it is a different sense of “dialect”! I use “dialect” in the sense of “language variety”.

    mollymolly, thank you,

  19. John Cowan says

    So say we all in Hattiland, but out there — not.

  20. dialect writing asks readers to (re)translate the literary dialect in their minds

    this seems to imagine that no reader would ever be a speaker of ‘dialect’, or familiar enough with it to understand without a distinct intermediating translation process. hurston certainly thought of her reading audience, at some points in her life, as being white or from the black bourgeoisie (and may have been right) – but it’s rather like her to undercut her own analysis by excluding herself, and others with similar backgrounds.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    I like the definition of “Russian,” although I don’t know how long it remained current (if indeed it was ever broadly current outside some fairly limited social circle). In the late Eighties, a standard word in the dialect of black residents of the Washington, D.C. area was “Bama,” meaning hayseed, bumpkin, country cousin, someone who lacked cosmopolitan urbanity and polish on account of having just moved to the big city from rural [Ala]bama. Apparently that word has continued to thrive in the 21st century, with some semantic drift into a more general sense of uncoolness, and eventually attracted the attention of the press back in Alabama: https://www.al.com/living/2017/06/bama.html.

  22. David Marjanović says

    this seems to imagine that no reader would ever be a speaker of ‘dialect’, or familiar enough with it to understand without a distinct intermediating translation process.

    I read it completely differently, with “literary dialect” as “the written representation of the dialect”. If the dialect is normally unwritten, nobody is used to any writing system for it, so nobody is a fluent reader, no matter if they’re a native speaker.

  23. The words “reading” and “translating” can each be stretched to mean the other, but their defaults fall on opposite sides of the Goldilocks case of a dialect speaker decoding a text written in literary dialect.

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