How to write a dictionary in prison.

Notes from around town.
May 1 2007 7:21 AM

The Con's English

How to write a dictionary in prison.

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(Continued from Page 1)

[a] maytag n. (prison sl.) old school
1. one who washes other peoples clothes in prison out of fear or intimidation. 2. a follower; a flunky.
ex: "Ya man was my maytag in prison." "He lookin' for somebody to be his maytag." "They made 'em into a maytag."

Sheidlower said, "That's an insightful distinction"—one between merely being a flunky and being a flunky in a particularly demeaning way. "He omits the usage as one forced into sexual servitude, but let's assume he omitted that on purpose rather than that he didn't know it." Indeed, Sheidlower was somewhat disappointed at the lack of derogatory terms, but overall, he pronounced the guide "pretty good." He offered to submit some of Kearse's slang words for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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When I passed this news along to Kearse, he was selling copies of his book at a table on Church Street, between Chambers and Broadway. (Since the publication of Street Talk,Kearse has published a book called Changin' Your Gameplan: How To Use Your Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success and started a Web site for prisoners to post journal entries.) As we chatted, he said he was struck by how slang contains a lot of sadness—Viking sounds amusing until you are forced to spend 13 and a half years sleeping next to one, maytag sounds funny until you see someone humiliated into becoming one. During his confinement, putting a meaning to these words became a way for Kearse to hold his former life at some remove and, finally, to break with it. "I guess it made me realize that wasn't the life I wanted to live," he told me as he sold books. "I don't even use slang that much anymore, because I'm not into the things I used to be into."

Correction, May 7, 2007: An earlier version of this piece misstated the publication date of Dan Burley's Original Handbook of Harlem Jive. It was 1944, not 1933. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.