A witness testifying in a murder case at the municipal courthouse in nearby San Fernando admitted that he and friends had "boola'd" about three or four grams of "rock" the day he said he saw the three defendants beating up their victim.
One of the defense attorneys asked if the man meant that he had been using "crack," another term for the potent, smokable form of cocaine."Crack ain't the word," the witness answered. "We had the boola-boola."
While the judge and attorneys spent several minutes trying to confirm that "boola" meant cocaine use, court reporter Debra Tigno was worrying about
how she was going to spell the word, which does not appear in any dictionary.
Tigno spent a couple of days talking to other court reporters, and as a group they decided against "builya," "builla" and "buila." "We decided not to spell it with a `u' because it sounded more like boo," Tigno said.
Court reporters, whose official job is to record court proceedings, have also become the unofficial historians of new words and phrases that make their way from the streets to the witness stand and finally into the written language.
"We are the bridge between the street and the dictionary," said Alice Moell, a Los Angeles Municipal Court reporter for 20 years.
Gang members, drug users, police and attorneys - the main players in most criminal courtrooms - are constantly creating new words, giving new meanings to old words and combining familiar words into new phrases that mean little to those who speak only the sort of English taught in school, court reporters say.
In testimony, nouns are apt to become verbs or adjectives and vice-versa, Moell said. Undercover police officers may say they "surveilled" the suspect, who, the defense attorney claims, was not properly "Mirandized," or advised of his rights, at the time of arrest.
Police are notorious for creating new words by shortening existing ones, such as "perp" for perpetrator, "ped" for pedestrian and "wit" for witness.
More baffling to court reporters is the gang member who, for example, might testify that he was in his "hoopty" around "dimday" when some "mud duck" with a "tray-eight" tried to "take him out of the box." Translation: The man was in his car about dusk when a woman armed with a .38-caliber gun tried to kill him.
The judge in the San Fernando case admitted having a great deal of trouble understanding the language used in that preliminary hearing, so he frequently stopped witnesses to ask for an explanation. When cases reach trial before jurors unfamiliar with street slang, defense attorneys and prosecutors must ask witnesses to explain unknown words and phrases or risk losing the case.
Court reporters can interrupt hearings at any time if they cannot understand what is being said. The process can be tedious. The San Fernando case, which prosecutors said would take only half a day, ended up lasting three full days. The three defendants were bound over for trail.
Court reporters have reference materials available in a library at the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building that include books on medical terms, guns, trade names, computer jargon and street slang. "Every field, every industry and every profession has a language peculiar to itself," said Gary Cramer, a court reporter and executive director of the Los Angeles County Court Reporters Association.
But books on street slang can be outdated by the time they are printed. When a word cannot be found in any reference materials, "the reporter has no option but to write it down phonetically, noting in parentheses that thereis no such word, but that this was the sound that was made," Cramer said.
Court reporter Elaine Alaoglu described what she said is one of the most popular methods of deciding how to spell new words: "I ask around the lunch table if anyone has heard of the word, and if somebody has, I ask them howthey spelled it . . . by asking other reporters you usually end up with a consensus."
Prosecutors and police are often the best sources for finding out what a slang word or phrase means, but not necessarily how to write it. "Police officers are notoriously bad spellers," Cramer said.
Although some terms used by black and Latino gang members, for example, have been remarkably stable over the years, new additions and variations pop up constantly, said Sgt. Al Grotefend of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Operation Safe Streets gang detail. Among black inmates in the state prison system, the newest jargon is a form of Swahili, Grotefend said.
Some Latinos have for years spoken a Spanish slang known as "calo," which uses words such as "troca," for example, adapted from the English word truck rather than the Spanish word "camion."
It may be months or years before Swahili slang reaches the streets and enjoys popular use, Grotefend said. Or it might suffer the fate of many new words that surface and disappear without notice, according to Victoria Newfeldt, editor-in-chief of Webster's New World Dictionary.
"Some of the things you hear on the street one year, nobody cares about the next," Newfeldt said. To end up in her dictionary, Newfeldt said, new words must survive the test of time, be used nationwide and be recorded in newspapers and magazines.
But for court reporters, words need only be spoken once before they are worthy of permanent record. And once references become accepted into mainstream use - such as gig, get down or nitty-gritty - the groups that created them will replace them with new ones, court reporters say.
"Ten years ago, police were pigs," said Moell, who works criminal hearings. "Now they are fuzzballs and slimes."