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The Long History of Boston ‘Mobspeak’

This 1980 black and white surveillance photo released by the U.S. Attorney's Office and presented as evidence during the first day of a trial for James "Whitey" Bulger in U.S. District Court in Boston, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, shows Bulger, right, with another man at a Lancaster Street garage in Boston's North End. Bulger is on trial for a long list of crimes, including extortion and playing a role in 19 killings. (AP)

This 1980 black and white surveillance photo released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and presented as evidence during the first day of a trial for James “Whitey” Bulger in U.S. District Court in Boston, Wednesday, June 12, 2013, shows Bulger, right, with another man at a Lancaster Street garage in Boston’s North End. Bulger is on trial for a long list of crimes, including extortion and playing a role in 19 killings. (AP)

Listen closely to the court-admitted audio tapes of James “Whitey” Bulger’s jailhouse conversations, and you’ll hear some interesting things. In one conversation between Bulger and his brother John, they discuss money Bulger funneled to hitman-now-government-witness John Martarano.

“It was handed to him?” Bulger says.

“No,” says John, “It went to Mikey Flemmi’s House… They whacked it up probably.”

And then a bit later there’s this:

“Stir it up,” Bulger says. “That’s amazing.”

Stir it up. Depending on the context, the phrase could mean a lot of things. Linguist Ben Zimmer’s been listening closely to the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, and he says witness testimony has “opened up a time capsule of old-school Boston mobspeak” that traces its history back more than 300 hundred years.

Guest

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com.

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Boston Globe: “The witnesses presented a whole typology of mobsters and mobster wannabes. They mentioned “hang around guys,” who loiter on the fringes of the action; “front guys,” who provide an innocuous facade for illegal dealings; and “stand up guys” who refuse to rat out their colleagues by “rolling” or “turning over” when the authorities come calling.”

 


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