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August 18, 2009

Baltimore on The Wire, translated for the Brits

Apparently the Brits are having a bit of trouble grokking what one British critic dubbed "the mumbled patois" of Baltimore, spoken, as the Independent puts it, by "black American drug dealers and street-wise detectives" on the TV series The Wire. So they're resorting to subtitles. But just in case the Independent provides a helpful phrasebook.

Baltimore talk Lost in translation?

*The hopper from Balmer carrying a burner

A child drug dealer from Baltimore is carrying a disposable mobile telephone used by drug dealers to stop the police monitoring their conversations.

*Crew up with corner boys for a re-up

An instruction to form a team of young men who can sell drugs on a street corner when a re-up, or a re-stock package from drugs wholesalers, arrives.

*The G pack

A wholesaler's package of 100 vials of cocaine

*He's a Yo

Police term for a corner boy.

*The civilian's carrying weight

An ordinary person who is neither a drug dealer nor an addict who has been served a custodial sentence.

*The Game

Life of a drug dealer in which the dealer accepts a distinct set of ethics in which even apparently minor transgressions may be punishable by death.

*There's been a humble

An arrest or search of a corner boy on flimsy or no evidence, intended merely to humiliate.

*Stash house

A heavily guarded property in which drugs are stored and cut.

*Those Red tops/blue tops/yellow tops are worth a lot of cheese

The colour-coded vials of cocaine (use to identify quality) are worth a lot of money.

*He's not a fiend, he's slinging

He's not a drug addict, he's selling drugs.

*Walk-around money

Petty cash used by corrupt politicians for the purposes of persuasion on election day.

Posted by Jay Hancock at 6:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Media


This is surprising since I hardly heard any Baltimore accents during a recent viewing of the first season of "The Wire" on DVD. Mainly New York patois. It was hard to take this show seriously with such a glaring defect. Count me among those who are still looking for the Emporer's new clothes.

It's unfair to make fun of them for this. After all, many Americans need subtitles to understand some British shows.

Context people! I didn't know any of these terms before watching the Wire because like many of the show's fans, I am not a Yo, slinger, fiend or a member of the local 5-0. Placing subtitles is akin to having character names and bios for every character that appears on screen.

I also didn't notice any true Bawlimer accents when I watched The Wire, and found that to be a little disheartening.

I also watched the whole series w/the close captioning on since it was hard to understand what was being said.
I didn't need it to be translated for me, but I definitely needed some help in what was actually being said.

I would say those are the accents and terms of The Game not blue collar Bawlmer. Jay Landsman (former city cop)is the only actor with a true Baltimore accent on the show.

None of my British friends (mid 20's to mid 40's) who watch the Wire use the subtitles, but it would not surprise me that a critic for the socially conservative Daily Mail would choose to do so. I have to say that the "phrasebook" is so pythonesque that you have to wonder whether it was included in the original article as a joke!

Fah! Cockney rhyming slang is way harder for the layman to understand than Bawlmerese.

Word to the wise. Typically the drug being sold on The Wire and what both a G-Pack and the blue, red and yellow tops refer to is Heroin, not Cocaine. Baltimore is the Heroin capital of the United States, not the coke capital. That honor is held by DC.

Fair is fair. The Brits need subtitles for The Wire, I need them for 'Torchwood', 'Life on Mars' & 'Ashes to Ashes'. Come to think of it, they're getting off easy - only one show to subtitle.

Mrs. Donnelly had a pretty wicked Baltimore accent too. Landsman's was pretty vicious as well, but that was already mentioned.

Real Baltimore Accents on The Wire:

Jay Landsman
Mrs. Donnelly
Stan Valchek
Ziggy Subotka
Detective then Patrolman Santangelo
Many I'm forgetting

What about Valchek? His accent sounded pretty B'more. There's also that Harbor patrol cop from season 2 (the guy with McNulty) who's gotta be from here. Uh, and a lot of the black actors on the show are from here and their accent are B'More.

Also, speaking of subtitles, I now know what movie scene I was thinking of earlier.

"It was hard to take this show seriously with such a glaring defect"

Hard to take "the Wire" serious?

Which shows on TV do you take serious?

The Wire is the most realistic portrayal of the so-called War on Drugs, of conspiracies, of the American underclass, and of the politics in any organisation that either TV or films has ever made.

But you can't take it serious because the accent is not as convincing as your own?

Not to co-sign too much, but there were a ton of local actors and accents on the show.

Snoop Pearson is a glaring example of what I consider to be "black" bawlmerese, and as someone mentioned above, the actress portraying Marcia Donnelly was a total Hon.

I just thought I'd say that I'm from England, just outside of London, and I didn't need subtitles to understand what they were saying - sure there were a few words I didn't understand at first but I soon learned with the aid of context cues. "Crew up" seems very obvious to me. "Slinging" is used in the UK to refer to selling drugs anyway so I already knew that. "Fiend" obviously just means a drug fiend, usually a heroin and/or crack user. "Stash house" is particularly obvious, "re-up" is fairly so. "The game"
is fairly self-explaining, so is "G-pack" - well it's got to be a pack of something and the context tells you that it is probably going to be drugs!
One thing I find interesting is the way in the US the dealers seem to always put the drugs in vials. In the UK they just wrap them up in a cigarette paper and then some clingfilm. Why do American dealers go to so much trouble?
Also, don't forget when Trainspotting came out apparently American viewers needed subtitles for that too.

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About Jay Hancock
Jay Hancock has been a financial columnist for The Baltimore Sun since 2001. He has also been The Baltimore Sun's diplomatic correspondent in Washington and its chief economics writer. Before moving to Baltimore in 1994 he worked for The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and The Daily Press of Newport News.

His columns appear Tuesdays and Sundays.

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