Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Joint Venture

Here's an interesting article on Slate about Street Talk, a dictionary of urban slang written by amateur lexicographer Randy Kearse during eight years in federal prison on drug-dealing charges. Published by Barricade Books, the dictionary includes some 10,000 words and phrases and attempts to trace etymologies (notoriously tricky) as well as offering definitions. One interesting graf from the article:
Over the years, the word joint has proven to be one the most flexible words in urban slang. In Dan Burley's time [Burley was a dictionary-writer in the 1930s], it usually meant "a club," as in "the joint is jumping." By 1961, Robert S. Gold, author of A Jazz Lexicon, added that joint could also mean "penis" or "marijuana cigarette." Kearse says joint has further proliferated and includes several new definitions in Street Talk. "Say for instance you say, 'Yo, go get my joint,' " Kearse said. "If you knew that trouble's brewing, you'd go get a gun. Now, joint could also mean your girlfriend, but it's pronounced joan. 'Yo, that's my little joan right there.' " In addition to marijuana, Kearse says joint now also refers to a kilo of cocaine. It could also indicate a favorite song ("That's my joint playing"), an automobile ("Is that your new joint?"), or a year in prison ("He got 13 and a half joints").
(Of course, joint can also mean "prison," or at least it used to back in the days when Jimmy Cagney used to spend time "in the joint" in his pictures.)

Since I don't hang out with the same kind of crowd as Randy Kearse, I haven't got much personal experience with these permutations of joint. But I wonder where Spike Lee's use of the word since the mid-1980s to designate his movies ("A Spike Lee Joint") fits in. Was Lee responding to the proliferating meanings of joint as he'd encountered them on the street, or is it possible that Lee's usage has actually played a role in encouraging that proliferation?

Either way, the fact that joint has so many meanings adds several kinds of piquancy to Lee's metaphor. One can think of a Spike Lee picture not just as something to get high on but also as an object of love and devotion (a girlfriend), a vehicle in which you can travel, at least psychologically (a car), and even as a weapon for confronting enemies (a gun)--this last meaning reminiscent of the label Woody Guthrie put on his guitar, "This machine kills fascists." I like it.

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