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January 6, 2002: Bicycle Messenger Slang - 2002-01-30

TEXT: I'm Adam Phillips, sitting in for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble this week on Wordmaster. Today, it's the lingo of bicycle, or bike, messengers. Businesses in every major American city rely on "bike" messengers to zip in and out of traffic at breakneck speed to deliver documents and important packages. Over time, these couriers have developed their own colorful language to describe their work.

Before learning some of those words, I asked Travis Hugh Culley, a veteran Chicago courier and the author of "The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power" just what his day job actually entails.


"It's on the surface, a very simple job. I get a call on my radio that say I need to pick up something. I bike there. I lock up, I walk upstairs, I grab the package, get back on my bike, ride down the street, and deliver the package, amen! I get paid a few dollars for that delivery. What becomes hairy and difficulty is when you are doing fifty of those a day. And what's really a challenge is you are not going to make a living unless you are working that hard in a city like mine. In Chicago."

TEXT: Sheba Farrin, Mr. Culley's friend and a longtime Washington DC courier, was the "2000 Cycle Messenger World Champion." She joined us in the VOA studios to explain that courier slang is generally conveyed on the radio walkie-talkies couriers wear strapped to their shoulder bags.


FARRIN: "The language, the different lingo, is used to describe specific buildings, specific sections of town. There is always radio language which varies from city to city, and if you are not familiar with it, you probably wouldn't understand a word anybody was saying on the radio."

CULLEY: "Like what is a 'rag'? If my package is a 'rag,' it's not in any hurry. I've got 'a rag in the bag' and I've got nothing to do. So I can take on more work keeping that one package on board for four hours or more. And if I had 'hot work on," it would be an entirely different situation. If my package is 'burning up all over the desk' meaning the dispatcher's desk, not in my bag then I am going to be in a serious hurry and I am going to 'beeline it' of course."

FARRIN: "'Having it on' just means having it in his bag. We use a 'ten-code' for that. 'Ten-eight. I have the package. It's ten-eight.'"

CULLEY: "There is always the ten-four, which also turns into slang in Chicago as 'Tenth Floor!' And Chicago, 'Roger Roger' is 'Roget Roget' [ROH-jhay'] FARRIN: [laughs] Yeah actually we do the French Roger in Washington as well! Q: So 'ten-four' means what? CULLEY: That means 'I copy -- I understand -- your transmission.' CULLEY: There is actually a ten-two that means 'yes.' And a 'ten-three' that means 'no.' 'Tenth floor,' fo-riah' [as heard] is just a way of saying 'copy.'"

FARRIN: "One of the things that is most interesting to me is that from city to city there is a different name for a 'run' or a 'tag' or a 'ticket.' Okay, you pick up a package and you bring it from Point A to Point B. In Washington DC, that's called a 'run.' That's one run. In Chicago, it's a 'drop.' In San Francisco, it's a 'tag.' In other places, it's a 'ticket.'"

CULLEY: "Once you make your 'drop' and you've got nothing in your bag, in Chicago, you're 'clean.' FARRIN: And here, you're 'clear' because you weren't 'dirty' to begin with! [LAUGHS] CULLEY: Not so! Not so! You are always dirty in Chicago!"

Q: Do you have special words for customers that you deal with that are really hard or harsh? [LAUGHTER] FARRIN: Uh ... no. We keep that language to ourselves sometimes. CULLEY: If they concern a client, they stay with us!

TEXT: Ms. Farrin says that a 'rookie' meaning, someone who is inexperienced, is one potentially wounding word couriers use on each other.


"You don't get any respect if you're a rookie. And the longer the person who is calling you a rookie has been on the street, the longer they are willing to call you a rookie. I had been a messenger for five years and my 'old school' friends were still calling me 'rookie.' And 'old school' would be the opposite of the rookie, of course. The rookies, you feel sorry for them. They don't know their way around, they don't know how to dress in the rain, but you're not going to help them!

CULLEY: "The best tip I can give to a new bike messenger, a rookie, in any respect, a rookie is just don't quit in the face of people calling you a rookie all the time. FARRIN: They'll be your friends soon enough! CULLEY: in the face of weather and things like that, the most important thing is that you keep pushing through it. The human body is built so as to be weatherproof. And though you might be a little wet and sometimes a little cold, it does not mean you cannot do your job!"

TEXT: Travis Hugh Culley is a bicycle messenger in downtown Chicago Illinois and is the author or a book about his craft "The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power." Sheba Farrin is the 2000 Cycle Messenger World Champion, and continues to deliver packages in and around Washington DC. And that is Wordmaster for this week. I'm Adam Phillips.