KNIFE CRIME AND GANG SLANG

 

Image result for knife crime

 

How could an obscure, elderly linguist have anything relevant to contribute to the debate now – belatedly – taking place on knife crime in the UK? It is many many years since I hung out, ineffectually feigning menace, with a gang of suburban mods (in the days when ‘bovver boots’ were the only dangerous item of subcultural paraphernalia), many years since I taught in an inner city London school and watched as younger teens gradually became disaffected and detached from family life and adult society. Much later I investigated and wrote about the successive waves of tribal youth culture – hippies, neo-teddy boys, punks, new romantics, rave aficionados, hiphop enthusiasts and the rest – who occupied the space reserved for ‘folk devil’ in the periodic ‘moral panics’ that the grownup public, with the help of the media, has always indulged in.

I was always interested in the outward signs and symbols, the accessories and the poses that these groups used to design and to project their identities, simultaneously signalling their belonging and their rejection of outsiders. I was more than anything interested in the special language that they used, generally characterised as ‘slang’, to communicate with one another and to baffle and dismay their perceived enemies – parents, teachers, the forces of social conformity in general.

 

Image result for knife crime

 

It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of peer-groups, in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings. I have collected the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language such as business jargon, fashion and lifestyle buzzwords and the ‘weasel words’ of politicians.

 

Image result for drill music

 

I wrote last year about the distressing, frightening language used by members of street gangs who identify with the Drill music genre, and on this site you can find my updated dictionary of the terms they and their followers and imitators use, terms which many other quite innocent and uninvolved young people will be familiar with, but which are alien and incomprehensible to most adults. There are links to news articles accompanying the Drill Dictionary, and other articles on youth slang and so-called MLE on this site too.

https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/

The phenomenon of Drill, to a lesser extent of Grime music and the gangs who use their style of rap and hiphop songwriting and recording, is so closely linked to the knife crime ‘epidemic’ that is being discussed as I write, that the connection can’t be downplayed or ignored. Today’s gangs, with their territorial disputes, drug-based economies and hypermasculine culture of bragging and ‘dissing’ differ from earlier incarnations in that they declare their allegiances and flaunt their activities semi-publicly online, using messaging, social media platforms and video recording.

 

Image may contain: text

 

I’m not of course suggesting that all the disturbing messages being exchanged by the gangs are accurate or sincere, or that the knifings and shootings they boast about have all really taken place. But I would propose very forcefully that anybody who is trying to analyse or engage with their behaviour must analyse and engage with what they themselves are saying and the language they use.

My own take on this is not just that of an interested outsider. For the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them teenagers). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately appalled at what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, distressing language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, to stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.

 

Image result for knife crime

 

There are now a number of experts on the ‘multiethnolects’, the new urban speech patterns prevalent among younger speakers that mix elements of native and minority languages. Professor Paul Kerswill and Professor Jenny Cheshire were the first to name the phenomenon as MLE – multicultural London English – and have written extensively on it. There are also expert forensic linguists, such as Professor Tim Grant of Aston University, who employ linguistic methods in the analysis of criminal language, enabling them for instance to identify authorship and authenticity of anonymous messages and online communications by paedophiles and others. My own claim to expertise is that I am one of very few who focuses on up-to-date slang and on items of criminal vocabulary (the deliberately secret languages known as ‘cryptolects’), rather than the scientific analysis of longer sequences of speech or text.

In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a burner is a handgun; dotty means shotgun, Rambo, ramsey, shank or nank is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify trap as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, plug as a drug source, dip as stab, op as enemy, duppy as kill, dasheen as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same mindset with its obsession with respect, its reverence for violence and indifference to suffering seems to apply everywhere.

 

 

Among the voices raised in the latest debate, Akala’s stands out as representing real experience of, and sympathy for the victims and perpetrators. I only feel that he underestimates the levels of violence tolerated and celebrated, the extent of the ill-gotten wealth and the technical sophistication of the gangs of today. Rappers routinely claim that their lyrics are a fictional reflection of an imagined street life, a poetic evocation of rage and intensity rather than a call to arms, but the words written by young knife-carriers that I have had to translate are exactly the same words used by the rappers. In some cases the rapper is the perpetrator – the killer himself. The young people living in the postcodes most affected by knife crime are of course dealing with the new reality every day, as explained here.

 

 

Beyond the gangs young people are speaking and writing and broadcasting about the pressures and oppressions of urban lifestyles. A good example is the short film on the inner city life, Drawn Out.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OEuq5szR7I

 

Knife crime is intimately bound up with gang slang and vice versa. To try to understand the killings and the woundings and their perpetrators and victims without understanding what they themselves are saying makes tackling the hugely complex problem much more difficult.

**Please contact me if you can supply examples of street slang for my databases. Contact me too if you need to interpret street talk or criminal slang yourself, or if you would like me to contribute to projects in this area.**

As a footnote, I have had a lot of very interesting and constructive feedback (suggestions, criticisms, donations of new terms) arising from this article and from my broadcast on the same subject on Voice of Islam radio. I will write about the ideas we have been debating in an upcoming post, but for now I would just like to make two things clear: I am not suggesting that young users of slang or ‘MLE’ are implicated in wrongdoing or a culture of violence, only that the gangs who are share the same day-to-day vocabulary. Nor am I posing as an expert on BAME identities or London’s music culture – I’m a linguist asked sometimes to act as an expert witness and translator. Finally, as proof that Akala is right and that press stories on gangs are nothing new, this from 1958…

 

A DRILL DICTIONARY

By their keywords shall thee know them?

Image result for drill music

The latest in a long series of moral panics (the term used by sociologists since the 1970s) exploited by the UK press and now subject of rancorous political debate, the issue of knife-crime and killings by street gangs, mainly in London, is genuinely concerning and is only now receiving the attention and analysis it demands. A side-effect of media interest is that the language used by the gang members and by the music genres that celebrate them is being recorded – haphazardly and not always accurately – for the first time. The musical genre in question is UK Drill, a successor to the ultra-hard-edged Trap Rap (from The Trap, slang nickname for the local area where drugs are dealt) that appeared first in Chicago in the 2000s. Drill (the word can signify shooting but has many other slang senses) has been adopted and adapted by hyperlocal urban communities in the poorer parts of London and, despite their claims, doesn’t just evoke the harsh realities of life on inner-city estates, but often glamorises it and seems to promote an ethos of territoriality, boastful masculinity and murderous retaliatory violence.

Image result for London knife crime headlines

So far only very few reporters have managed to penetrate the groups whose members occupy and fiercely defend their microzones, fighting for control, too, of economies based on drug trading. The rappers emerging from the same postcode- or estate-defined enclaves compete and feud electronically, dissing and threatening their rivals in their lyrics – and in a few cases have actually been implicated in killings or woundings on the street.

In May 2018 the Metropolitan Police intensified attempts to ban videos associated with the music genre and the gangs caught up in street violence:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/drill-music-stabbings-london-youtube-violence-police-knife-crime-gangs-a8373241.html

I hope soon to engage with members of this subculture and find out more about their values and the way they encode them. In the meantime I have begun to assemble a lexicon of the most significant key terms they use, in a slang which mixes US hiphop argot and Caribbean expressions transposed to or reinvented in London (harking back to the Yardie gang culture of the 1980s). So far just a glossary, my list is far from complete, so please help me add more items if you can, or correct my mistakes. Here is this work in progress as it stands, now updated for February 2019, followed by some relevant links…

Active dependable associate

Akhibrother, friend

Back outdraw (a weapon)

Baggedcaught

Bally, Balibalaclava

Bandoabandoned property

Bangerhit, successful song

Barslyrics

Beefdispute, feud

Bellsbullets

Bitzone’s neighbourhood

Blowleave, escape

Booj, bujheroin

Bookie, bukisuspicious

Bora, borerknife

Boxprison

Bozzleader

excellent

Breeze offleave town, disappear

Bruckshotsawn-off shotgun

Burnergun

Cabby – cigarette containing cannabis and cocaine or cannabis and crack mix

Canprison

Cheffed (up)stabbed, killed

Chetemachete

Chingknife

to stab

Chingingchilling and hanging out

Codes‘postcode areas’, zones where gangs dominate

Cornammunition

Crashraid, invade

Crashing cornshooting your gun

Cunchout-of-town locations where drugs can be sold

Cuttinleaving, running away

Dashthrow

run (away)

Dasheenrunning away, fleeing

Diligentadmirable, brave, cool

dependable associate

Ding dongdispute, brawl

cheap car

Dippedstabbed

Dipperknife

Donrespected person

Dottieshotgun

Dunkill(ed), punish(ed)

Drawn outinvolved in gang culture, under pressure from street crime

Drillershooter, gang member

Drillingattacking, aggressing, invading

Dumpyshotgun

Duppykill, dead

Endzone’s neighbourhood

4-doorsaloon car

Fedspolice

Fielddanger-zone, combat area

Fishinglooking for victims

Flashedstopped, pulled over e.g by police

Fooddrugs

Fryshoot (at)

Gassedexcited

Gemweak person

Glidedrive into enemy territory

GM(fellow) gang member

Go cunch/countryleave the city to sell drugs in rural/seaside locations

Gotattacked, robbed

Grubbyauthentic, tough (neighbourhood)

Gwopmoney

Hand tingpistol

Hittergunman

Iron  – gun

Khalablack person

Ketchupblood

Kwef – violence

Kwengcut, stabbed

Layersprotective clothing

Legginescaping, running away

Lenggun

Linkcontact, source for drugs

Lurkstalk a victim, prowl around

Mac(k)automatic firearm

Mashgun

Matrixedplaced on the London Met police gang database

Mazzamadness, crazy situation

Moistdisgusting, pathetic

Mop – large gun

No facemasked, with identity concealed

Ootersshooters

Oppsenemies

Opp-blockenemy territory

OT‘out there’ or ‘out of town’, away on business, dealing in country locations

Oxrazor, blade

Pagan, paigonuntrustworthy person, enemy

Patchterritory

Pavestreets

Pedmoped

Penprison

Plug –  a contact for drugs

Preeto check out, assess (a person)

Properexcellent, admirable

Psmoney

Rack – quantity of money, £1000

Rambolarge knife or machete

Rams, Ramsayknife

Reppromote or publicly declare for (one’s area, gang)

Ride out for (someone)to defend, even if guilty

Score kill or injure an enemy

Scoreboard, scorecardlist of enemies killed, injured or defeated

Scramgun

Scrumattractive female, sex

Shankknife

Shoutsgreetings, acclaim

Skate, skeetrun away

Skengknifegun, weapon

Slewruin, defeat

Slidingdriving into enemy territory

Smokekill

disappear

Snitchinformer

Spinnerrevolver

Spinnerspetite females

Spittingrapping

Splash, splash up, splash downstab

Squirtspray acid (over someone)

Stepping on toestrespassing on or attacking enemy territory

Stickgun

Stickydangerous

Stonesbullets, pellets of crack

Strapgun

Swimmingstabbed

Swordknife

Ten toesrun away, escape

Trapneighbourhood, ‘ghetto’, area where drugs are sold

Trappinghanging out, selling drugs

Treypistol

Tum-tumgun

24sall day

Wapgun

Wassstupid person

Wooshshoot

Worksybusy, diligent

Yatgirl

personal style, skill

Yuteyoung person or young people on the street

There are some terms for which I don’t yet have a perfect definition:  doughnut or pepper, for example. These expressions have multiple meanings in street slang, but I’m not sure which one is prevalent in Drill culture. Khala can be an Arabic or Asian pejorative term for a black person, but Khalas! means ‘that’s enough!’ I’m not sure whether both are in use and by whom. Please advise me if you can.

You can find a dictionary of multi-ethnic London slang and other examples of so called MLE (Multicultural London English) here on my site. I have extensive files of youth language, available to researchers, journalists, etc. on request, and here are some more street slang terms from the UK Rap and Grime milieu, many also used by Drill aficionados:

https://genius.com/15983458

https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2013/08/british-rap-slang/draw

And from the mouths of the Drillers themselves:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnGZRWUHGh4

The only useful information on alleged links between drill and crime comes from commentators with a street-level perspective:

http://www.gal-dem.com/uk-drill-music-london-gang-violence/

https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2018/01/uk-drill-sl-harlem-spartans-67-essay

Belatedly aware that Drill is worthy of attention (‘demonic’ was The Times‘ characterisation), the mainstream press began to investigate:

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/drill-music-london-stabbings-shootings-rap-67-abra-cadabra-comment-government-a8305516.html

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/09/uk-drill-music-london-wave-violent-crime

One successful attempt to get inside the world of the gangs reveals the frustrations and futilities of life in ‘the bits’:

http://www.channel5.com/show/inside-the-gang/

And here, from Dazed magazine, is a small selection of some real peoples’ views (they resolutely absolve the music):

http://www.dazeddigital.com/politics/article/39960/1/knife-crime-young-people-east-london?utm_source=newzmate&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dazed_daily

In June this important piece, from youth worker Ciaran Thapar in the New Statesman:

https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/music-theatre/2018/06/treating-drill-rappers-terrorists-colossal-mistake

Here are some examples of the music, with very strong language:

…Compare and contrast all this with Drill’s older brother, Grime, as testified by Jeffrey Boakye:

http://www.gal-dem.com/hold-tight-conversation-jeffrey-boakye/

…And here, from June 2018, a timely review of all Black UK music genres from Yomi Adegoke:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/01/grime-afro-bashment-drill-how-black-british-music-became-more-fertile-than-ever

View story at Medium.com

In October 2018, Channel 4 TV commissioned a music video in which drill music is combined with language used by British politicians:

https://www.channel4.com/news/what-do-drill-musicians-make-of-mps-violent-rhetoric-watch-the-music-video

Here is the latest on the subject from the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/06/dont-censor-drill-music-listen-skengdo-am