Gil Scott-Heron's old-fashioned ghetto code

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Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday at the age of 62 — a remarkable performer whose politically charged combination of music and poetry had an enormous influence on the development of hip-hop culture. One of my favorite spoken-word performances by Scott-Heron appeared on the 1978 compilation, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: " The Ghetto Code (Dot Dot Dit Dot Dot Dit Dot Dot Dash)." It's full of linguistic play, including an explanation of "old-fashioned ghetto code" used to mask phone conversations from snooping authorities.

The code involved infixation of "ee-iz" [i:ɪz] between the onset and nucleus of stressed syllables. So-called "[IZ]-infixation" would later become popular in rap music (particularly as used by Snoop Dogg), though OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower has found examples back to a 1972 glossary on New York drug slang. There was also a predecessor in the talk of carnival workers (carnies), with the word carn(e)y represented in the code as kizarney. (See Joshua Viau's "Introducing English [IZ]-Infixation: Snoop Dogg and bey-[IZ]-ond" for some background.)

You can hear the whole performance on YouTube here. The relevant part starts at about 6:28:



I've isolated the audio here.

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My attempted transcription (corrections welcome):

Old-fashioned ghetto code, you remember, you used to jump on the telephone, say, "Hey, bree-iz-other mee-iz-an, how you fee-iz-eel?"
(Laughter.)
"Is everything all-ree-iz-all-right? Well, why don’t you, uh, why don't you tell me about this pee-iz-arty to-nee-iz-ight? You goin'? Wee-iz-ell, why don’t you bring me a nee-iz-ickel bee-iz-ag?'
(Laughter.)
"Yeah, and if you get [???] why don't you bring some bee-iz-am-bee-iz-oo so I can ree-iz-oll those up. I appreciate it."
I know whoever it was they was paying to listen in on my phone had to be sayin', well, "Dot-dot-dit-dit-dot-dot-dash, damned if I know."

Scott-Heron published a shorter version of "The Ghetto Code" in the anthology, Now and Then:

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16 Comments »

  1. Bob C said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    I remember back around the early 60s the nighttime rock-n-roll deejay Murray the K used a lingo he called "M – ee – iz – urray." I think he acknowledged that it came from carney slang.

  2. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

    'nuff said

  3. John Cowan said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    Jeff: The word "not" was removed from that saying in 1989.

  4. John Jameson said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    What happened in 1989?

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    A revolution, which was televised.

  6. Joe Fineman said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

    When I was a schoolchild in Beverly Hills, CA, in the 1940s, we had a similar code, involving the insertion of "ib" (pronounced [aIb] before the vowel, only IIRC it was done to every syllable, not just the stressed one. I don't remember what we called it — maybe "horse Latin"; we thought of it as an alternative to pig Latin.

  7. Chris Holdaway said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    This ain't really your life ain't really your life ain't really ain't nothing but a movie. RIP.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    Wikipedia's article on language games lists a number of them for many languages, but not IZ-infixation, which seems to be the same as "Meusurray"* (Fong-Torres 2001, p. 136). They don't list IZ-infixation, though

    @Joe Fineman: WP doesn't list your game, which seems to be a variant of Obby Dobby* ('Insert "ob" (/ˈɒb/) or "ub" (/ˈʌb/) before the rime of each syllable').

    * Both of which I remember.

  9. Rick Sprague said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 7:41 am

    @Mark Mandel: Infixed "ub" in the first syllable of each (non-function?) word is what I remember as "Double Dutch" (Dububble Dubutch), which the Wikipedia article also doesn't mention.

  10. Mark Mandel said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    "Meusurry- an argot New York disk jockey Murray “the K” Kaufman stole from the carnies in 1962" — Arnie Katz, p. 14. In "Two-Fan Worldcon", pp 11-14, in Home Kookin’ #6, August, 2009, "a more or less spontaneously monthly fanzine produced at the 7/20 Vegrants meeting."

    @Rick Sprague — I remember that one, too. Wanna add it to WP?

  11. Doug C said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    In the transcription, I would change bee-iz-am-bee-iz-oo to Bee-iz-am-bee-iz-ú.

  12. mkerht said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    @Joe Fineman We did that with "egg" in the 90s and called it Dog Latin. I can still understand and produce it almost normal speech speed. It's amazing how incomprehensible it is to outsiders.

  13. Danny said,

    May 29, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    Getting back to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised vs. The Revolution Will Be Televised: I think Gil was saying that the mass media by its very nature will never present an authentic representation of a revolution or of movements for social change. The U.S. media's coverage and analysis of the revolutions of 1989 certainly bear that out. Also, the kind of revolution he had in mind was not regime change but deep socioeconomic change that would allow great numbers of ordinary people to realize dreams and aspirations that the pre-existing order systematically thwarted: "Black people
    will be in the street looking for a brighter day. . . ./The revolution will put you in the driver's seat." Were that sort of revolution to take place, it would penetrate all of society, such that: "You will not be able to stay home, brother.
    You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
    You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
    Skip out for beer during commercials,
    Because the revolution will not be televised."

  14. Heru said,

    May 30, 2011 @ 1:58 am

    Brother Gil ain't dead to those who are alive. Dig!

  15. marc said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Japanese schoolgirls (at least) during the post-war period did something like this, infixing -nora- into words. "Wanoratashi no henoraya" (watashi no heya – 'my room') is an example a schoolteacher gave me about 15 years ago.

    I can't find any examples on the web, tho.

  16. David B Solnit said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    A slight variant of that "ghetto code" dating back at least to the 1920s can be seen in items like:
    "Informal words for 'Negro':…spagingy-spagade (from theatrical hog Latin for spade)…[and for w]hites: fagingy-fagade (from theatrical hog Latin for fay)"
    cited in The Harlem Renaissance by Steven Watson.

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