monitors, analyzes and corrects media reporting errors and bias concerning messengers and couriers.

Messenger Institute
 for Media Accuracy

Start with the facts:

Benefits of messengers

Are messengers reckless?

When is a license just another label?

What is the disguised name for employee?

Messenger Appreciation

Messenger Memorial


This report omits two of the the first and most important messenger dictionaries. It's title is similar to one of the first documeted dictionaries, "The Lexicon of Toronto Bicycle Couriers by Mike Jursic from CMWC '95 in Toronto. The other is The San Francisco Messenger Dictionary by America Meredith from CMWC '96 in SF.

These were combined online along with other contributions at:

There is also: "A lingo of their own - messenger terms" from the Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1994

Running reds and killing peds: The lexicon of bicycle messengers

English Today 78, Vol. 20, No. 2
(April 2004) pp 48-53
Cambridge University Press

By Zoe Nyssa

A report on a variety of 'Messenger English' used in Toronto

[The title 'Running reds and killing peds' is adapted from a line in the song Daredevil Delivery by the San Francisco punk band Tribe 8. It was written by Lynn Breedlove, the band's lead singer/song writer, and a well-known bike messenger and messenger company owner. The song is track 11 on their 1998 album 'Role Models for Amerika', (c) Alternative Tentacles Records, San Francisco CA.]

Performing what is often considered one of the world's most dangerous jobs, bicycle couriers are proud to be considered 'other' - or simply suicidal - by the rest of the world. The job lacks prestige and security, and the wages of bike couriers, which were already low relative to the risks, have been steadily decreasing in the last decade. Yet there is a kind of solidarity. This study seeks not only to discuss the kind of language couriers use but also to show how that language reflects both the work and the solidarity in the 'messengering' world.

Messenger English

The job of bicycle courier attracts several different types of people: professional or career couriers, who are often heavily involved in bike racing and bike messenger culture; under-educated and chronically under-employed people who are unable to find or retain work elsewhere; and students, artists, and other self- or seasonally-employed people who are passionate about bikes but don't consider messengering to be a vocation. The latter are casually or temporarily employed during the summer months and are in school or working indoors during winter. Although all three kinds of bike courier are fluent in the basic jargon necessary to perform their jobs, career couriers - lifers - use a much larger lexicon, and both disseminate and expand it in a variety of media.

It would however be dangerous to give too much credence to these types as strict and mutually exclusive. Many career couriers are also undereducated and unemployable elsewhere due to mental instability (practically a prerequisite for the job) or questionable personal or employment history. Alternatively, some career couriers are university-educated and highly employable but choose courier work for its flexibility, casual atmosphere and physical or outdoors nature. Some career couriers are not at all interested in messenger races or messenger culture, while many casual and summer couriers are already involved in these aspects.

Because couriers primarily talk to each other (at work over radios or cell phones, or socially after work), most of the lexicon is created and used orally. Linguistic innovation is prized as a means of reinforcing group identity, and courier conversations often include nonce words and phrases that may or may not be adopted by the wider lifer community. New vocabulary - as recorded in messenger-related zines [an informal abbreviation for fanzine, a fusion of fan and magazine: Ed], websites and BMA (Bike Messenger Association) proceedings - tends to be less evanescent than in normal oral language because the term has already gained enough oral currency that writers are confident of being understood.

Occasionally a writer will include a nonce word or phrase in their piece with the ambition that it will be used by the wider community. Tracing the etymology of a messenger word is often impossible; like other kinds of slang and subculture language, by the time there are several instances of the word being written down, it has often been in use for several years, while words coined in writing are often never again used. In distinguishing between the two, I have relied on my six months' experience working as a bike courier in Toronto. I have also used two online messenger glossaries, and several messenger zine article reprints, to find lexical items not used by my company, or in Toronto at all, and to pick out some distinctive features of this variety of English. (See the diagram below)

Messenger English can be conceptualized as the intersection of several other subsets of English (see diagram). Except for terms relating specifically to bike couriers (general and city specific bike courier terms), these subsets are used by other, often very different, populations: see Fielding's Danger Finder <http://www.comebackalive.com/df/dngrjobs.htm>, which in addition to bike messengering, lists such jobs as cabbie, smoke jumper, Navy SEAL and CIA operative. And yet to designate messenger English as consisting only of those lexical items recognized and used by bike messengers oversimplifies the linguistic experience of most messengers. To be successful, messengers must be articulate in several registers of English, each increasingly specific to their occupation, and it is the particular combination that makes messenger English unique.

As will be discussed below, this combination also appears to be how at least some messengers experience their variety of English - the bulk of both an American and a Canadian glossary of messenger English is made up of words which are not bike-courier specific. Bike couriers must know all the general courier vocabulary, but couriers in general (including those who deliver packages by car or on foot) will not know specifically bike courier terms. The main forms of Standard English lexical expansion for each subset are investigated below, alongside some conjectures as to why those forms are employed in each case.

General courier terms

Because bikes are just one type of transportation a courier company will use to deliver packages, a wider set of courier terms is used by all members of a company: first, the receptionists (or hubi) who take and sort clients' delivery orders (known as calls or tags: cf. the Ottawa Messenger Directory, <http://www. angelfire.com/ct/cmwd/jargon.html>, last accessed October 22, 2003); then by the dispatchers to whom the hub relays calls for scheduling; and finally by the couriers who receive calls from the dispatcher over a radio or a phone and then make deliveries by car, by bike, or on foot.

At the start of employment with a particular company, each courier is assigned an ID number (usually two or three digits) by which they are known on the radio and with which they sign their invoices. This reduces confusion when, as in my company, there are four Mikes working for the same dispatcher. To request the attention of the dispatcher, couriers broadcast their number over the radio at large; in turn, dispatchers preface every utterance with the number of the courier they are addressing. The numbers used by notorious and/or zinewriting couriers often become eponymous (cf. the Ottawa Messenger Directory, website as cited above).

All couriers will understand instructions from their dispatch ('dispatcher') to standby ('wait where you are until I have a call for you'), to pick and drop ('begin or continue picking up and dropping off the calls I've already given you'), or to pick and call ('pick this call/these calls up and then call me for further instructions'): cf. the NYC Messenger Glossary <http://www.moon-shine.net/messenger/ glossary.html>, last accessed October 22, 2003. As in any workplace, an etiquette governs appropriate communication between dispatchers and couriers. Although a modicum of profanity and teasing between couriers is tolerated over the radio, the astute courier understands that dispatchers apportion lucrative rush jobs at their discretion. Couriers who continually interrupt or pester their dispatcher for work, or frequently vent their frustrations on the radio, soon find themselves making $2 or $3 an hour.

The use of radios to relay calls from dispatch to couriers has resulted in the adoption of many expressions, most of them numbers from a standard list of radio phrases common to CB users in other sectors, such as truckers, police officers, and shortwave radio aficionados. For example, ten-nine, roger (or roj), and copy are all used interchangeably as acknowledgements. Ten-nine means 'pardon?' or 'what?'; roger means 'understood'; and copy is used especially to acknowledge unusual, or unusually detailed, instructions, or as a query by the dispatcher to ensure that the messenger has received and understood an unusual directive ('Copy that?'). Couriers are paid strictly by commission, and so the goal of every courier is to deliver as many packages as possible per day.

On a busy radio with much static, syllables easily get lost and couriers who have misheard an order may find themselves travelling across the city for no good reason. As a result, things are kept simple and the most common special forms are: (1) clippings, such as peds for 'pedestrians' and dispatch for 'dispatcher', and kinds of ellipsis, such as pick for 'pick up the call' (an item for delivery), drop for 'drop off the call', holding x for 'I have picked up and am holding x number of packages', and move for 'end your standby and move on/towards a call'). Two initialisms known to all couriers are POD ('Proof of Delivery') and PU (a 'pick-up' from someone who is not a client of the courier company on behalf of someone who is).

Each company also has specific courier terms which are used by all members of the company and relate to the names for kinds of service offered by the company. At my company, the delivery times from slowest to fastest are basic, rush, direct, and double direct or emergency. Some in-house shorthand is used for summarizing calls on couriers' text-messaging devices, so that these services would be abbreviated on my pager as rus, dir, dd or *e*, but if read aloud, these shorthands would be expanded: that is, direct is never called a dir or a dd over the radio. City-wide, different companies will also share specific courier terms relating to particular geographical features (uptown to a courier in New York City means something different than to a Toronto courier) or major streets or office buildings (Welli for Wellington Street and TDT for Toronto Dominion Tower) that couriers must navigate [from 'Common Downtown Buildings', a training handout from Quick Messenger Service, Toronto]. If an abbreviation can conceivably be pronounced, it will be, Royal Trust Tower becoming RTT pronounced 'rut'. Otherwise the initials are said, Royal Bank Plaza South as RBPS. Each company has a number of regular clients, many designated by an ellipsis of either their name or their address. At my company, Triple 3 means 'Rogers Cantel at 333 Bloor E'.

Bike couriers are mostly twenty-something white heterosexual males living in large urban centres and conversant with pop and drug culture. They use slang typical to this population, in which proj means 'marijuana' and tweaked is 'agitated'. Interestingly, both of the messenger jargon glossaries examined here include terms belonging to this set, although it is unclear whether the jargon compiler considered these terms unique to messengers or it was assumed the typical reader would be unfamiliar with this slang. This non-courier-specific slang varies across urban centres, and where the glossary notes that the slang occurs in one region only, I consider it here to be a city-specific slang term ('drunk on cock' appears to be an Ottawa usage, but not a New York or San Francisco one). Most of these slang terms are formed by a semantic shift or narrowing, a kind of encoding that reinforces in-group status for those familiar with the slang word's street connotation.

Bike couriers share some vocabulary with bicycle enthusiasts at large. General bike terms include bike component names as well as slang and bike-related trade names. Bike component and trade names are usually compounds (such as seat post, top tube, Rock Shox, Gore Tex), with a few borrowings from French that reflect the early Continental European enthusiasm for the bicycle: derailleur, peloton, and velodrome. Many trade names have distinctive kinds of spelling or clipping to make them trendy (tex for 'textile', shox for 'shocks'). General racing terms include draft (to follow [someone] closely so as to reduce your wind drag) and drop (to pull ahead of the other racers).

General bike courier terms are widely understood by all bike couriers, but are unlikely to be used either by the hub or by other types of couriers. Terms that undergo semantic narrowing often relate to occupational activitgies and hazards, as with slide (lean against a moving vehicle while riding beside it), civilians or cattle (pedestrians), alley cat an illegal messenger street race. Like more general types of slang, the semantic conversion underscores the wittiness or in-group membership of the speaker. Words formed by blending often have the base messenger, as in messengerdom ('the messenger kingdom'), messengerosity ('messenger generosity'), and tend to be tongue-in-cheek references to the messenger community.

Some terms may have originally been appropriated from a wider domain but now only be used by couriers. I never heard the term skitch ('to grab onto a moving vehicle for a ride') until I started messengering, but a 42-year-old nonbiking Chicago friend has assured me that as children, she and her friends used skitch to denote hitching a ride from a vehicle or train while at the same time riding anything with wheels, such as a bike.

The word da, which has taken on Zen-like connotations of one-ness with messenger-ness, may come from the better-known North American expression of censure duh. Written as da, it is associated exclusively with courier culture: a famed San Francisco messenger zine is called Voice of Da. Among Canadian messengers, da is considered an Americanism.

Messengers avoid acronyms when talking shop, the only exception being the Canadian-made expression HPR, short for Human-Powered Rollercoaster, a diabolically designed portable velodrome (bike race track) that is still spoken of in tones of hushed awe by nostalgic messengers worldwide. Its unusual figure-eight shape led many an ambitious messenger to crash spectacularly off its 10-foot edges during weekend gatherings known as 'Alley Cat Scrambles'. In 1999 the corporate sponsors pulled out and there hasn't been an HPR race since.

The savvy Toronto bike messenger knows all of the above and is an enthusiastic creator, user (and sometimes even documenter) of city-specific bike courier terms which outside of the local community or company will be unknown, even to other bike messengers. These terms may refer to places that figure large in the local messenger scene and are usually formed by ellipsis, as with the Dom, the Dominion Tavern in Ottawa (cf. the Ottawa Messenger Directory, as above, last accessed October 22, 2003), Jet (the café called Jet Fuel in Toronto), and Tompkins (the Tompkins Square Park in New York). Local slang, which doesn't presuppose any knowledge of local geography, can be formed in various ways, by:

 blending, as in cop with popsicle to get copsicle (referring to some officers' cold-hearted penchant for targeting the frequent traffic violations of couriers)
 compounding, as in dick scratcher (one who scratches his penis, for a salaried dispatcher with a cushy office job)
 semantic conversion, as in to call in stupid for 'to call in sick', and the plague for illness. These words, with their reliance on aural puns and exaggeration are often still semantically transparent enough to be understood in conversation by out-of-town couriers.


Since Messenger English is a specialized occupational subset of the language with a small population of users, any documentation of its lexicon has been created by messengers themselves. But the rapid turnover of people doing bike courier work and the predominantly oral nature of workplace communication means that the messenger lexicon is in a constant state of flux and is unlikely to be recorded in slower, more expensive print or digital media. This state of lexical flux is evident in words like box. The New York Messenger Directory describes the box as the no-stopping zone painted in the centre of intersections, a definition familiar to downtown Toronto drivers since the police began painting similar boxes at busy intersections a few months ago. But the American narrator of Standby refers metonymically to the dispatcher as 'the Box'. Other usage differences include calling the hub (the term preferred at my company and which is listed in the Ottawa Glossary) or the base, and reporting to dispatch I'm clean (holding no packages; a term listed in the New York Glossary) rather than the I'm clear that I would use and that is documented in the Ottawa directory.

Surprisingly, terms for things and activities which are essential to bike couriers while navigating road hazards seem to rarely appear either in conversation between messengers or in zine articles. These include skitching (as above), grinding (purposely initiating contact with an adjacent vehicle with your body or handlebars, to avoid getting hit by surprise), waving (catching one green light after another and accelerating while you do so), alley (the path between car lanes that is just big enough for a bike), and surfing bumpers (weaving in traffic to change alleys). This may be because most of these terms are not used in actual work communication with dispatch or the hub, but in social settings with other couriers: for example, relating a close encounter with another vehicle that day, or how one was avoided. On these occasions, there may be enough room in the narrative to explain a situation without needing to resort to a mutual but infrequently used lexical shorthand.

Although the technological advances of do-ityourself print and Internet publishing have allowed messengers to expand and disseminate the bike courier lexicon, technological advances in telecommunications are quickly rendering some of this lexicon obsolete. As the costs of text-message-capable and Internet-ready cell phones decrease, more courier companies are switching from a radio and/or pager system to one managed exclusively via the Internet. In the web phone system, clients request pick-ups, dispatchers schedule work and couriers receive their calls through an integrated website that allows both clients and dispatchers to track deliveries in real time. Instead of the constant radio exchange between dispatcher and couriers, workplace communication for couriers is restricted entirely to receiving text-messaged calls and submitting text-messaged PODs.

Besides being cost-effective, the new system is appealing to companies precisely because it precludes workplace interaction among couriers. Without radios, couriers have no way of knowing if it has been a slow day for calls or the dispatcher is favouring particular couriers, nor can they access the communal body of knowledge of their fellow couriers on local traffic conditions or difficult to find drop-offs. Although it is unlikely that the general-courier and bike- courier lexicons will be lost, the primary productive domain of lexical invention for couriers is disappearing. 

A glossary of messenger terms

alley cat An illegal bike messenger race. Generally the races work in stages; participants race to the first destination, pick up further instructions and/or prizes, then proceed to the next destination. Any and all aids are allowed - maps, radios, etc. - and local messengers have the home advantage because of their familiarity with local terrain and shortcuts. Racing is far from restricted to roads; racers are allowed, even encouraged to use their messengering ingenuity and to shortcut through buildings and private lots, as well as up and down stairs, if necessary.

clunker/beater An old or heavy and therefore slow bicycle. Messengers use their clunkers when their good bikes have been stolen or crashed.

critical mass/mass On the last Friday of the month, in cities around the world, cyclists take over the streets during the evening rush hour for a leisurely ride, thereby achieving the triple purpose of visibility for the cycling cause, socializing for the cyclists, and infuriating drivers: 'Are you going to Mass tomorrow?'

door v. When a heedless passenger in a parked car opens their door into the path of an oncoming cyclist. 'This guy in a Honda doored me yesterday.' The associated noun is known as the door prize.

endo v. To crash, especially when the rear wheel flips over the front wheel: 'I endo'd on the way home and had to take the bus.'

krypto v. [from the bike lock manufacturer Kryptonite] To attack a person or object (generally a vehicle or its driver) using a long or more, these locks make formidable weapons: 'Some cabbie just cut me off at Bloor and Yonge, so I krypto'd his sideview mirror.'

meat/potatoes/gravy Bike messengers need plenty of food to make their deliveries. Burning many more calories than the average office worker, most messengers can't eat enough to keep up with their body's demand. Their obsession with food has given rise to such metaphors as: meat and potatoes deliveries which earn an average commission; potatoes, low-commission deliveries; gravy, an especially highcommission delivery, such as an emergency delivery, especially across town, especially with wait time (see below): 'Why'd the dick scratcher give you all the gravy?'

track bike A bike meant to be raced on a track, but favoured among purists. Track bikes have one gear and no brakes; braking occurs by pedalling backwards, or, for the truly adept, by sliding the rear wheel against the curb. Also known as fixed gear bikes or fixies, although technically fixies are a larger class of bikes which does not preclude the possibility of brakes.

wait time Time a courier spends waiting to make a pick-up, usually because the client does not have the package ready. After waiting 10-15 minutes, couriers at most companies can charge for their wait time, thus securing much-coveted gravy.

weekend warrior Derogatory term for a recreational cyclist, especially one affluent enough to afford the latest gear.


Zoe Nyssa has a degree in astrophysics from the University of Toronto and is about to begin her M.A. in the rhetoric of science at an as yet-to-be determined university in the Midwestern U.S. She is still amazed that someone was willing to pay her to ride her bicycle and is sure that, forty years from now, she will look back on her stint in messengerdom as a career highlight. For the record, her steed of choice that summer was a strippeddown Rocky Mountain Route 66 with Michelin slicks, on which she typically logged 450 km. weekly. She thanks Dr Carol Percy at the University of Toronto for her enthusiastic support of this project.


Article Archives
About us
Contact us
Send comments or suggestions, to: mima@messmedia.org

Bike messenger emergency fund