Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Words in the Courtroom, from Mobspeak to "Argle-Bargle"

American courtrooms can produce some fascinating linguistic specimens. Two high-profile court cases have put language on display. In Boston, the trial of mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger has provided testimony full of old-school crime lingo. Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion on the Defense of Marriage Act featured some "legalistic argle-bargle."

In Sunday's Boston Globe, I wrote a column about some of the colorful slang used by witnesses in the Bulger trial. Bulger was captured after sixteen years on the lam, and is now standing trial for charges ranging from extortion to conspiracy to commit murder. Witnesses for the prosecution have been recounting misdeeds going back 30 or 40 years, and their testimony is packed with the kind of mobspeak we usually only hear in TV and the movies. (Unfortunately, there's no audio available for the trial, so I've had to rely on court transcripts and the reporting of journalists at the trial, who have been tweeting up a storm.)

Some of the slang in the trial stems from the world of bookmaking and loansharking. From my Globe column:

Two of the early witnesses called by the prosecution were the bookmakers Jimmy Katz, 72, and Dickie O’Brien, 84. Katz and O’Brien’s testimony was full of pungent lingo from the "shylock" business—a "shylock" being a loan shark, after the character Shylock in Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice." The fee that the bookies would charge on a bet is the "vig" (short for "vigorish," probably from Russian via Yiddish) or the "juice." To share the risk on big bets, a bookie may "lay off" some of the action by making a side wager with another bookie. And if a bookie low in the pecking order comes up short, then higher-up bookies like Katz and O’Brien would provide "makeup" to cover the loss. Not paying back the "makeup" could get you hurt, they testified.

Former hit man John Martorano, who spoke of using "boilers" (stolen cars) and "greasers" (machine guns) in committing violent crimes at Bulger's behest, turned out to be something of a semanticist:

Martorano bristled at one typical bit of mob slang: "hit man," a term for a hired killer first noted in Eric Partridge’s 1963 "Dictionary of the Underworld." Even though Martorano had collaborated with Carr on "Hitman," he said he didn’t identify with the term, because it implied that he was paid for killings on a contract basis. He also claimed he didn’t "rat" on Connolly when he testified against him, because "you can’t rat on a rat." ("Rat" meaning "informant" goes all the way back to 1818.) There’s no moment like the one where you’re on the witness stand, apparently, to open up ancient crimespeak to reinterpretation.

Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on the Defensive of Marriage Act featured more rarefied language. One phrase in particular from Justice Scalia's dissent attracted some media attention: "legalistic argle-bargle," which he used to describe the reasoning of the majority opinion. "Argle-bargle," in case you didn't know, means "a verbal dispute" or "a wrangling argument." As I explained to the Atlantic Wire, the roots of "argle-bargle" are Scottish. It shows up as early as 1808 in Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Tongue, and a variant appears in a Scottish poem from 1720 (which also uses the word "daffin" meaning "folly"):

But 'tis a Daffin to debate,
And aurgle-bargain with our Fate.
—Allan Ramsay, "Poems"

"Argle" (a playful perversion of "argue") goes back to the 16th century, and "argle-bargle" is formed from it by rhyming reduplication, a common kind of word formation in Scots. As I discussed in a column about "Hobson-Jobson," rhyming reduplication tends to be either juvenile ("Humpty Dumpty," "hokey-pokey") or pejorative ("namby-pamby," "mumbo-jumbo"). Scalia didn't go for anything as prosaic as "mumbo-jumbo" when he was looking to cast invective on the majority opinion, however, reaching for the rare "argle-bargle" instead. (I confess I only know a variant of "argle-bargle," namely "argy-bargy," as the name of a 1980 album by the band Squeeze.)

If you'd like to hear more about the language of the Bulger trial, check out my appearance on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. And as mentioned in the interview, my column on the trial is my last for the Boston Globe. This Saturday, June 29, I'll be starting a new column for the Wall Street Journal called "Word on the Street," which will focus each week on a word in the news and its history. I hope you'll check it out.

[Update on the "argle-bargle" front: Victor Mair says the word has "swept newsrooms across the country." Witness the Washington Times headline, "Obama's argle-bargle on Keystone." And see further discussion on my Language Log post here.]

[Further update: My first column for the Wall Street Journal is now online, on the word "cyber." Check it out here.]

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.