KNIFE CRIME AND GANG SLANG

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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 also discussed all the issues involved with Rob Booth, Social Affairs Correspondent of the Guardian, who has published several insightful articles on innercity stress and street crime. His piece is here…

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/29/ching-wap-ox-slang-interpreters-decipher-texts-for-court-evidence

**Please do 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.**

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?

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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.

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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 May 2019, followed by some relevant links…

125 – scooter

Active dependable associate

Akhibrother, friend

Ammcannabis

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

Bruck, brukbroken (down), broke

Bruckshotsawn-off shotgun

Burnergun

Burstshoot

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

Canprison

CBOcriminal behaviour order

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

Crocannabis

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)

Guvprison officer

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

Machinegun

Mac(k)automatic firearm

Mashgun

Maticgun

Matrixedplaced on the London Met police gang database

Mazzamadness, crazy situation

Mentsmental, crazy

Moistdisgusting, pathetic

Moplarge gun

Nankknife, stab

Needcannabis

No facemasked, with identity concealed

On tagfitted with an electronic surveillance device

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

Pebs, pebblespellets of heroin, crack or steroids

Pedmoped

Penprison

Plug –  a contact for drugs

Popopolice

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

Riding dirtygoing out armed and/or in possession of drugs

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

Strallygun

Strapgun

Swimmingstabbed

Swordknife

Techandgun

Ten toesrun away, escape

Trapneighbourhood, ‘ghetto’, area where drugs are sold

Trappinghanging out, selling drugs

Treypistol

Tum-tumgun

Tweedcannabis

24sall day

Wapgun

Wassstupid person

Wooshshoot

Worksybusy, diligent

Yatgirl

Yaycrack

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/

As does this short film:

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 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 an update on the subject from the Guardian:

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

And the latest, in July 2019, from the Telegraph;

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/07/11/youtube-will-keep-drill-rap-videos-platform-despite-links-gang/

SLANG, ‘PATOIS’ AND – ONCE AGAIN – THE CASE OF ‘MLE’

 

Image result for multiethnic London youth

 

To coincide with this year’s Notting Hill Carnival I was interviewed by Sanjana Varghese and her excellent article in the New Statesman is here: 

http://www.newstatesman.com/2017/08/big-mle-origins-londons-21st-century-slang

Developing further some of the ideas in Sanjana’s article, and based on our exchanges, here are some more thoughts on the subject of multiethnic language, in a ‘question-and-answer’ format:

 

1.  What exactly is ‘MLE’?

 

The term MLE, coined in connection with Paul Kerswill and Jenny Cheshire’s research on dialect in 2004, describes a ‘social dialect’, ‘sociolect’ or informal spoken style of UK English used initially by ‘younger’ speakers and first identified in and first associated with London. This way of speaking is characterised by a vocabulary reflecting a high degree of ‘black’ (Caribbean English, terms possibly coined by afrocaribbean speakers in the UK, to a lesser extent US black ‘street’ language and hip hop terminology) influences and by intonation patterns and certain pronunciations which differ markedly from standard UK English and differ also from ‘traditional white working class’ accents although they retain some features such as glottal stops and ‘f’ instead of ‘th’. In lay terms, MLE appears to have a ‘lilting’, more regular intonation, resembling Caribbean and also South Asian speech, with some noticeable ‘cockney’ elements too. Its structure and syntax (‘grammar’) may display ‘deviations’ from traditionally ‘correct’ taught forms and the prestige dialects of ‘standard’ English and RP (received pronunciation). In terms of vocabulary, samples I have collected can contain up to 80% of Caribbean (so-called ‘patois’, but this is a slightly contentious term; it can be used dismissively by whites, though is happily employed by Jamaicans themselves) or other BAME lexis such as Somali, South Asian and in some isolated cases a few Turkish and Polish terms.

 

The designation MLE is well-known and widely used but, especially since this kind of speech (it is still largely a spoken variety of language, though increasingly appearing in writing in music lyrics and TV scripts and online forums and messaging) is no longer restricted to London and the core vocabulary in particular has spread to speakers all across the UK, some linguists prefer to call it Urban British English (UBE) or Urban Vernacular(s) or refer to it as a ‘multiethnolect’. It is now understood that mixed varieties of the same type have appeared in other European centres, and those in Germany (influenced by Turkish), France (influenced by North African and Arabic language)  and Scandinavia (Turkish, Arabic, Somali) in particular are the subject of research. These forms of language tend to include a high level of what can also be termed ‘slang’, ie very informal and deliberately opaque codes generated by peer groups, gangs and ‘microniches’ such as gamers, skaters, cosplayers.

 

2. How has it managed to pervade British youth culture?

 

In the 60s and 70s Caribbean English was only encountered in subcultures and popular culture via Calypso and Ska and Reggae music. Younger black speakers tended to be ‘ghettoised’ and tended to reinforce their own exclusivity by not mixing much with other subcultures – even the mods and skinheads who admired their music, so there was little spreading of black language. This began to change with the Two-Tone movement of the early 1980s, while in school playgrounds, on the street and in clubs, black speech began to gain social – at least subcultural – prestige, with young black males seen as the most resistant to the dominant culture. By the 1990s this tendency had combined with the rise of breakdancing, rap and its associated style displays (headgear, footwear, ‘bling’, etc.) USA to make it an overriding fashionable ‘wave’ carrying with it its own terminology. At street level in London I recorded white working class schoolkids in the 1990s using more and more ‘Jafaican’ (horrible pejorative term though it is) – crossing and codeswitching with what teachers called ‘creole’, ‘recreolised lexis’ or ‘patois’ in their conversations. By the later 1990s Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G was satirising this speech and the poses and style affectations that went with it. In the 2000s the ascent of UK Grime music along with influences and buzzwords from US hip hop reinforced the same tendencies, while in subsequent years social media and showbiz played a part, though the essential language was still coming from the street, particularly in London from gang culture and spreading by word of mouth. Although the tabloid press and broadcast has picked up on the phenomena they have not contributed significantly to actually propagating MLE.

 

3. Why has MLE attracted so much attention when other kinds of dialect change are common?

 

MLE is associated with social unrest, crime and what in the 60s was called transgression and ‘deviancy’, therefore lends itself to sensationalising  (and mockery too) by the media and displays of staged disapproval by representatives of the status quo (see for instance statements – and prohibitions – by educationalists, politicians, conservative journalists). ‘MLE’ is also much more important and pervasive in bestowing subcultural capital than any other instances of dialect change (which tend to operate in the regional margins and away from the attention of metropolitans), so in its own milieux and nationally it has overwhelmed other – relatively minor – changes in the lexicon or in phonology. Other forms of language change which are significant are the abbreviated codes (YOLO, FOMO, smh, obvs, etc.) and US slang (‘slay’, ‘woke’, ‘lit’, ‘(on) fleek’) used by young people on social media, and the faux-fashionable journalese use of jargon (‘Brexit’, ‘yummy-mummy’, ‘silver surfers’, etc.)

 

4. Is MLE unique to London and to English?

 

As noted above the same language phenomena are being observed in all global urban environments, most similarly in other diverse European capitals. In the UK MLE-like language is being studied particularly in Manchester (see e.g the work of Dr Rob Drummond and the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies) and Birmingham, but even in rural villages many kids are now familiar with the core terms (‘bare’, ‘peng’, ‘allow it’, ‘hench’ etc). Sadly, too, many entirely innocent British teenagers are familiar with the latest slang names of knives, guns and drugs.

 

5. Why are the borrowings in MLE overwhelmingly from Jamaica?

 

The Ali G persona was satirising what were then derided on the street as ‘wannabes’ or ‘wiggas’ (white niggas), pretending to be black, therefore cool. Gautam Malkani’s novel ‘Londonstani’ drew upon hybridity to mock a white boy pretending to be a cool Asian – actually a much rarer occurrence. Although Bhangra and Bhangramuffin music were briefly popular, as were musicians such as Apache Indian,  Asian Dub Foundation and  Jazzy B, South Asian pop culture, music and language has not challenged the domination of Afrocaribbean influence on MLE, hasn’t really crossed over despite Malkani.

The South Asian and Chinese and Japanese communities, Turkish and Somali and Polish communities for example just don’t have the same subcultural glamour and image of resistance and transgression, and therefore linguistic prestige as those with links to the Caribbean. It’s also very important that Caribbean speech is a variety of English, not a ‘foreign’ language, therefore very accessible and closely related, albeit with a very different sound.

 

6. Can the growth of this kind of multiethnolect be attributed solely to immigration?

 

The emergence of this type of mixed code, with accompanying informal lexicon and novel pronunciations is also about the dwindling within the UK of traditional social, cultural and linguistic authorities, the conditions of superdiversity in which people live and a new assertion of ‘minority’ identities, new access to media and communication. There are no longer power-groups within society or cultural influencers who have the capability of stemming or proscribing language change or enforcing disapproval of informal, provocative behaviour. Even when particular schools ban the use of slang, they are only momentarily affecting a very small segment of society.

 

7. Should we be worried by this particular aspect of language change?

 

From a purely objective linguistic perspective, language change, variation and innovation is not worrying. It’s a natural process, indeed a fascinating process and worthy of study. For someone like me, a lexicographer collecting slang and new language, new forms and new usages, as in the very dynamic and complex MLE matrix, are illustrations of the established workings of the language – the technical potential of English to create novel forms and combinations, also managing the well-known functions of language – to judge, to categorise, to help bonding and reinforce identities; the stylistic performance of language in terms of rhetoric, irony, poetics, etc.

BUT anything that is seen as part of a culture of crime, violence, drug abuse, family breakdown, even if it is more a product than a cause, will worry many people. Any significant changes in language will disturb and destabilise many people for whom their grasp of and usage of language is a fundamental part of their identity (often seen as something essential and unchanging, even if it isn’t really). For these reasons it’s not enough for linguists (or any liberals, ‘progressives’, descriptivists, etc.) simply to dismiss the concerns of traditionalists and conservatives – and ordinary worried parents, teachers and others.  Given that you can’t legislate against such language, it’s important to study it, debate and discuss it and see it for what it is.

One possible reassurance is that MLE has been seen as a temporary, developmental, transitional practice, just as youth slang has been assumed to be something that young people grow out of once they enter the adult world of work, family and other responsibilities. I have written that the vocabulary of multiethnic slang is inherently unlikely to persist into adulthood, dealing as it does with adolescent concerns: dating, sex, experimentation, illicit practices and managing prestige and competition within teenage gangs for instance. My colleague at King’s College London, sociolinguist and discourse specialist Professor Ben Rampton has, however, shown in small-scale studies that some of the features of MLE, in particular the practice of ‘crossing’ or code-switching between languages in mid conversation, may not be confined to ‘youth’ and may not be discarded in that way*. For me, this possibility most obviously relates to its intonation and pronunciation which I think may well come to have a pervasive influence in many circles in the UK, possibly changing ‘mainstream’ English in years to come. This can already be seen not just in young white and Asian people consciously imitating the sound of Jamaican, but in a new rhythm and emphasis in everyday speech which is shared by a wide variety of young adults, so that if you hear but can’t see the speaker, it’s impossible to determine their ethnicity. This was nicely satirised by the TV comedy series PhoneShop but is now really the case in diverse communities like Croydon, the fictional setting for the show, and a few elements of which are showing up in reality TV abominations like Love Island.

For most linguists the yardsticks by which we judge language are not ‘correctness’ or association with prestige – ‘poshness’ in other words, but just two criteria: ‘intelligibility’ (is it mutually comprehensible?) and more importantly ‘appropriacy’ (is it the right kind of language to fit the social context?). If you apply the notion of appropriacy there’s nothing inherently bad about MLE, or slang, providing it is used in a suitable setting, such as a school playground, club, on the street, in private banter, and not in school essays, exams, job interviews, formal encounters, in front of your Gran, etc.

 

*Some sociolinguists think that focusing on ‘youth language’ itself is discriminatory and is creating false categories. I have been criticised myself, both by conservatives for celebrating ‘ghetto language’ and one or two linguists who accused me of labelling the young and their behaviour. All I can say is that young people I have interviewed have very often referred to multi-ethnic slang as ‘our language’, the language of ‘the youth’.

 

Image result for youth at Notting Hill carnival

REAL TALK – ‘SLANG’

 

 

Image result

 

 

Of the TV series that have featured Urban Slang (or so-called MLE, ‘Multiethnic London English’) for me none surpassed, in authenticity, ingenuity and hilarity, the sitcom PhoneShop*, broadcast on Channel 4 between 2010 and 2013. Writer and producer of the series, Phil Bowker tells me  ‘Like you, slang’s something that has fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in Liverpool.’  It’s a great privilege to be able to print here, with Phil’s blessing, the script of this sequence intended for his follow-up satire on multicultural Britain for BBC2 The Javone Prince Show**, but never broadcast. Phil explains, ‘I wanted to spoof the kind of BBC London style of hack news reporting but instead of the usual fayre of drugs and knives, I wanted to make it about slang.’ Relish now for the first time this exposé of …Real Talk ‘Slang’…

 

EXT. URBAN STREET

Andrew Milligan (Jason Barnett) is on a walk and talk.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Why is my man Parrin’ me?” “Dat Gyal is pengalicious” “Watcha me come and lick off a ya headtop”            Words and phrases that you wouldn’t particularly want to hear coming out of your child’s mouth. But this is an everyday reality for thousands of parents across the Country as unscrupulous dealers are targeting our children at the very place where they’re most vulnerable: The school gate.

We cut to a School sign and then back down to Andrew as he crouches down outside the entrance. The floor is littered with discarded pieces of paper the size of christmas cracker jokes. There are lots of ‘capsules’ around too. He reads a couple of them – sickened at what he sees.

ANDREW

Pagan, Sideman, Sket…. (earnestly) Lovely isn’t it?

CUT TO:

INT.KITCHEN.

A mum (Debra Baker) Is interviewed in her spotless kitchen.

 

CONTINUED:

MUM

My 10 year old comes home, he calls his little brother a beg, calls me a slosher and tells me he’s goin his drum to blaze…’ What can I do about that? I ain’t got a clue what he’s talkin about….

 

Andrew Walk and Talk.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

We’ve all seen them plying their vile trade in pubs and car parks the length and breadth of the Country. The So called slang hawkers. You yourself may have even enjoyed using some casual slang at a dinner party. I’m ashamed to say, I have. I had bare laughs. But where does this slang come from? Who’s selling it, and what is the real cost? To find out, I took to the streets.

 

EXT.STREET. NIGHT

 

CUT TO:

 

 

Shot from a first floor window, we see Andrew making a call from a phonebox.

 

DEALER

(Voice Disguised) What you after?

ANDREW MILLIGAN

I’m looking for a, uh maybe a five pound deal?

 

 

DEALER

Fuck off. (Bleeped) You couldn’t even get a noun for that, you mug.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

What would, say £20 or £25 buy me?

DEALER

A small bag of verbs. Proper, good verbs, I don’t fuck (bleeped) around.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Sounds good my man, but how can I guarantee the quality of your slang?

DEALER

You heard of swag?

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Yes, Swag. I think I’ve heard Louis Walsh say it.

DEALER

That’s one of mine.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

 

Wow.

Wide shot of Andrew waiting by the telephone box.

ANDREW (V.O)

In less than five minutes one of the dealer’s word soldiers rode by on a stolen mountain bike.

We see a kid riding past on a bike throwing at book at him. Andrew bends down to pick it up (It’s a dictionary) He opens it up to reveal a hollowed out centre with a small baggy in it.     He furtively looks around and then opens the bag, looking at the tiny pieces of paper with words written on them.

 

ANDREW MILLIGAN

(slightly out of breath) The dealer wasn’t lying. There is a potency to this slang that I haven’t seen before. I have to admit, it’s quite thrilling.

 

INT. A STUDY

Talking head of Professor EB Black.

PROFESSOR

This is a massive problem we are sleepwalking into. Slang has been around for ever, but it was always kept at an acceptable level. It was fine for criminals, the working classes and immigrants but what we’re seeing now is a huge middle class uptake – it’s extremely frightening and this government needs to do something about it very quickly.                                I’m reluctant to use the word, but what we’re facing, is an epidemic.

Andrew swings round to camera.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

But what the chickenclart can be done?

 

CUT TO:

 

Hard cut to archive. Police raid on property. Shot of battering ram hitting door.

POLICE

Police!! Put the pens down! Drop the Quills! I repeat, Drop the Quills…

 

We cut to people coming out with their hands on their heads. They are all wearing glasses or visors. They look disorientated.

 

GANG LEADER

I’ll be back out on the streets in half an hour. You fucking rats.

He looks at the camera.

Penelope, get the bail money! It’s in the study underneath Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage….

ANDREW MILLIGAN (V.O.)

This slangmaster is facing a long “sentence” in a “pen” of his own making. But there is a way out. If not fi him, fi someone else.

CUT TO:

 

Talking head of reformed slang dealer Christian Gibbs.

CHRISTIAN GIBBS

I was always interested in language. The etymology, the syntax. Other kids would be out kicking a ball against a wall. I’d be indoors with me head in a thesaurus.

Andrew Milligan nods.

I started mucking around with slang. Making my own words up. Giving them away to mates in school. And then I realised. There was money to be made – and it went from there.

Andrew swings around to camera.

 

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Christian became so successful, within a year of selling his slang words illegally, he managed to buy his parents a new house, and was engaged to a Countdown semi-finalist. But things quickly went wrong.

CHRISTIAN GIBBS

I got greedy. I started mixing with the wrong people. I got too big too quick. At one point, I was running three or four terraced houses full of young academics twenty-four hours a day. I was effectively controlling most of the slang that was being sold in London. And then it all caught up with me.

 

EXT OF URBAN BASKETBALL COURT.

Christian is helping some young people to ‘lay up’

ANDREW MILLIGAN

After a spell at her majesty’s pleasure, Christian dedicated his life to helping the very people who once did his bidding in his urban slang factories.

 

CUT TO:

 

We see the trad shot of guys having fun. High 5ing etc

CUT TO:

 

Andrew Walk and Talk down an alley.

 

 

ANDREW MILLIGAN (cont’d)

Tragically, a few hours after that lay up we learnt that Christian’s past had finally caught up with him and he was ambushed by a gang of rival wordsmiths in a back alley Scrabble game.

 

 

He arrives at the taped off crime scene. There’s an abandoned Scrabble board and associated paraphernalia. He crouches down

ANDREW MILLIGAN (cont’d)

The last words he spelt out on the Scrabble board was a fitting testament to his memory: YOLO/ Gubati/Gggdedjs/

Andrew gets up and continues his Walk and Talk.

ANDREW MILLIGAN (cont’d)

So the next time you’re at a dinner party or even a simple kitchen supper and somebody decides it might be ‘fun’ to pass the ‘slang’ around, remember the real cost and just say no.

 

 

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/phoneshop

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b063hcgz

 

 

 

The ‘M’ in ‘MLE’ – Youth Slang’s Origins

Much of the vocabulary of MLE, the speech variety known as Multiethnic or Multicultural London English, derives (not always straightforwardly) from Caribbean or Black British usages, or from London’s white ‘working class’, often dubbed ‘Cockney,’ argot. There are, however, a number of slang expressions, used in the school playground and on the street by younger speakers, which come from elsewhere in the UK’s language matrix, even from archaic or foreign sources. Here are some examples…

 

Image result for Multi Ethnic youth

 

Feen (n)

Means: a male person

Usage: “Who’s the feen over by the gate?”

The proper names for Yoofspeak, so linguists tell us, are MLE (multi-ethnic or multicultural London English) or UBE (urban British English, with ‘vernacular’ sometimes substituted for English), but not all playground language emanates from the larger cities and ethnic or ‘cultural’ doesn’t only mean Afrocarribean or Asian.

One term that’s widely used around the UK is rarely if ever heard in the Smoke, but belongs to a 300 year-old tradition. Feen, also spelled fein, has been borrowed from the slang of Travellers, the argot formerly used by Tinkers and known as Shelta, itself deriving mainly from Irish Gaelic. In Irish feen simply means “man” but in slang it sometimes has the extra senses of “stranger” or “rogue”. Don’t confuse this with the verb “to feen” (sometimes “feem”), a modern import from US street-talk, which is an alteration of ‘fiend’ and means craving for, or obsessing over, as in “I’m feenin’ for some weed” or “he’s feenin’ over that new girl.”

 Image result for laughter

 

Hollage (n)

 Means: something hilarious

 Usage: “Have you seen Charlotte’s latest outfit? Très hollage!”

 Posher teens have their own version of yoofspeak, their own mix of would-be street slang, babytalk and invented expressions, typically in the form of girly yells of approval (by both sexes) and squeals of delight (ditto).

When the denizens of the middle-class playground are trading witticisms a favourite trick is to insert touches of French – the odd real word (“quelle disaster”, “beaucoup trouble”) and Franglais pronunciations. “Rummage” (sex), and “bummage” (enthusiasm) have been frenchified, but current favourite is “hollage”, meaning huge amusement or hugely amusing, pronounced to rhyme with English “college” or like French “collage”, or, some young purists insist, as three-syllable “holla-age”.

It looks as if the little sophisticates have adapted “holla”, (the hip-hop version of “holler”, meaning to yell), one of cool Yoof’s iconic expressions from the noughties, and slightly misunderstood it in the process, since it originally described phoning, praising or seducing rather than braying with laughter. In the US the very similar-looking “holla-age” has indeed been used to describe “the appropriate way to acknowledge or compliment a female.”

Stupid Emoji Stickers

Dinlo (n)

Means: an idiot

Usage: “You can tell Callum anything and he’ll believe it, he’s a right dinlo.”

Some linguists are claiming that far from dying out, regional dialects – and that includes local slang terms – are being helped by messaging, chatting and tweeting on social media sites, as well as old-fashioned word of mouth – to spread further across the UK. A probable example of this is yet another term for a complete dope, or dupe, (in practice nearly always male) which originated in Romany (and not in Cantonese as claimed on Urban Dictionary) as dinilo and has long been in use from the New Forest, via Portsmouth’s ‘Pompey – slang’ to East Anglia. Dinlo(w) is the usual form, although “dinler”, “dindler” and “dingle” have also been recorded. Yoof elsewhere have now added these to their already rich lexicon of insults, sometimes abbreviating to “dinny” or just “din”.

 

Image result for exhausted teens

 

Trek (v,n)

Means: (to go on) a long and tedious journey

Usage: “Man we been trekkin’ for hours!” “From her endz to ours is a trek.”

Researchers into Yoofspeak will know that in nearly every batch of new expressions offered up as the latest teen lingo, there are one or two which are not really slang at all. This is because most of the younger generation are not familiar with them and don’t realise that they are standard English: also, to be fair, because they sound and look exotic, possibly subversive to the uninitiated. “Trek”, used more or less in its original sense is a popular feature of playground complaints – the moaners probably don’t know much Afrikaans (from which we got the word), and even Star Trek the Prequel is a distant memory. More recently the word, or the variant “treks!” can be an exclamation, declaring that something, not necessarily a journey, is too tiring or boring to bother with or to finish, but one post on Urban Dictionary defines it much more specifically – and perhaps just slightly more positively – as a “4-10-mile” walk undertaken to counteract the effects of drugs or alcohol.

Examples of the same phenomenon are “luka” or “lookah”, used by some London kids to mean money, which seems like Multiethnic dialect but is really the picturesque old phrase ‘filthy lucre’ after a makeover. (Oddly, in the US, the Slavonic boy’s name Luka seems to have been conflated with the colloquial “looker” to denote an attractive male.) “Burly”, which one user explained as a blend of “beautiful” and “gnarly”, expresses admiration for a tough-looking male, and “reek” as in “Ben’s room really reeks” is also considered a really cool novelty. (Incidentally and tangentially, adult informants tell me that for them “reek” mainly registers these days as the name of a character in TV fantasy Game of Thrones, or as a mistyping of ‘wreak.’)

 

(These terms were first recorded in my Youthspeak column in the TES)

 

A WHITE CHRISTMAS?

GAK – A CASE IN POINT

 

 

One of the showbiz gossip-sheet Popbitch’s favourite words of the last decade, the online crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary’s earliest citations of it are from 2003, defining it in one instance as cocaine, in another as amphetamine or methamphetamine. The short sharp single-syllable in question is gak.

It interests me because it seems to be without precedent, ‘of uncertain etymology’ as the dictionary compilers have it. The same word is, in their jargon, ‘polysemous’, and can mean quite different things: paraphernalia, ‘stuff’ used on-set in the jargon of movie crews; something nauseating, or an exclamation of disgust in high-school slang, and semen or ejaculation in the argot of pornographers and sexploitation professionals. Like gank it can also mean to steal, rob or plagiarise in the US street argot and cyberslang of the noughties.

From comments supplied by those ‘donating’ the word to Urban Dictionary or other online lexicons the drug it most often denotes seems to vary according to region: methamphetamine in Nevada, cocaine only in London (just this week replaced by Antwerp as Europe’s number one consumer according to analysis of the water) and marihuana in Sydney, Australia. On an online forum in 2002 a UK-based contributor asserts that ‘gak is cocaine’, noting the trending expression gak attack to describe sniffing the drug from a partner’s naked body or blowing it up their nose.

When I first encountered the word I guessed that it had something to do with the involuntary constriction of the throat that the sound of it replicates, a connection which would fit with more than one of its referents, but I had no evidence to support this. Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a citation from 1997 with the spelling gack, and hazards that it may derive from a British dialect word for chatter, which I think is doubtful. In my own 2014 Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang I glossed it then as ‘probably the most widespread nickname for the drug in use from the mid-noughties’, though it now has rivals in chang, ching and chop, opining that it ‘may be an imitation of a gagging reflex or sudden swallowing and/or snorting as a dramatic reaction to ingestion.’

The word highlights an interesting challenge that the lexicographer, of slang in particular, has to grapple with; the fact that in the communities where such terms are coined and traded there are no real authorities. There are anonymous individuals fluent in the colourful nonstandard vocabulary, ‘expert users’ in linguistic jargon, but these are not ‘language experts’ who can compare and contrast and draw on knowledge of earlier examples. Even when the real-world informants that fieldworkers rely on offer up a convincing etymology, as they often do, accompanied by plausible anecdotal supporting evidence of who said it first, in which locations the expression is widely used, etc. these confident assertions are as likely as not to be mistaken, if not invented for the occasion. The dates attached to reports of slang may not mean much either: most slang originates in speech and slang usages can be exchanged for years in an underground milieu before they come to the notice of commentators. Dictionary citations nearly always record only the first printed examples.

Consumers of illicit drugs inevitably coin their own nicknames for the substances they ‘abuse’. They aren’t going to use the ‘official’ technical names for the chemical compounds in question (unless reworked as in Ket, K or Special K for Ketamine) and ownership of an exotic and mysterious alternative marks out the user (of the words and the drug) as an insider, a member of an exclusive, transgressive community. When a drug is a crucial part of a shared sense of identity its users will come up with more than one name for it, eventually developing a whole range of colourful references, a phenomenon known as ‘hypersynonymy’ (drinkers, university students for example, also do this, using scores of more interesting ways of saying ‘drunk’). Whether they see themselves as glamorous or fun-loving or abject and pitiful, cocaine enthusiasts can in the midst of euphoria display a hint of levity, as my own favourite terms beak and bugle (both older British slang synonyms for nose) and, evoking the singleminded satisfying of animal appetite, nosebag, testify.

 

    Image result for nosebag

In June 2019 Tory leadership contender Michael Gove admitted to having used cocaine, prompting facetious and irreverent comments on social media, many of which referred to the drug by the slang designations mentioned above, as well as flake, sparkle, blow and yayo. Perhaps the most memorable remark came from MonkeyDog on Twitter: ‘I’m more surprised when people haven’t tried cocaine. I mean how have you avoided it? Even popping to the pub there’s more beak than at an owl sanctuary.’

This helpful 2016 guide to drug nicknames from VICE magazine includes our key word, and provides comments on users and usage:

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-your-choice-of-drugs-slang-says-about-you?utm_source=vicetwitteruk

…and Gak’s popularity is highlighted in this Londoner’s blog from 2013:

https://confessionsofashallowman.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/coke-city-how-gak-is-taking-over-east-london/

High society magazine Tatler investigated fashionable drug use and its terminology in 2013:

http://www.tatler.com/news/articles/june-2013/the-drugs-report-part-one

http://www.tatler.com/news/articles/june-2013/the-drugs-report-part-two

…and UK drug advisory agency FRANK published this A- Z of drug slang:

http://www.talktofrank.com/drugs-a-z

 

(NOT) Girls’ Talk

 

Gal-dem, also galsdem or gyalsdem, refers in London’s multiethnic street-talk to a group of females (mansdem is the male counterpart). It’s also the name of a magazine for women of colour. I talked to Faima Bakar about the street attitudes that mean that girls are criticised for using slang and profanity while boys use them with impunity. The topic relates both to MLE, the mixed urban dialect favoured by many young people, and Banter, a hot issue again in 2016. Both of these are treated elsewhere on this site, but here’s Faima’s article on boys and slang

 

http://www.gal-dem.com/girls-talk-street-tell-my-man-shut-up/

 

CAPTAIN GROSE’S VERY VULGAR TONGUE

Image result for captain francis grose
As a collector of slang and commentator on popular culture I had long been fascinated by my predecessor, the 18th century ‘alternative Dr Johnson’, Captain Francis Grose. In searching out the language of the underworld and demi-monde for his own dictionary, the hugely corpulent, hard-drinking Grose abandoned the dusty archives where Johnson (and all his modern successors) toiled, to go down into the gutters, taverns and bawdy-houses of London in a quest for the authentic voices of the users of what he called ‘the vulgar tongue.’

As an ageing babyboomer, would-be flâneur and one-time follower of fashion, (and, like the Captain, dilettante and enthusiast) I was acutely conscious that time was getting short. Morosely celebrating a significant birthday this year I realised with a shock that I had reached the age at which the Captain’s adventures were terminated –by ‘a sudden apopleptic fit’, in mid-carousal, in an inn in Dublin.

I decided five or six years ago it was time to realise my project of a life of Grose, a hommage, a profile, but not in the form of a classic biography. I would follow him into the bars and clubs, the backstreets, precincts and sink estates of 21st-century England, seeking out the low-lifers of today and recording the richly evocative, scabrous and exotic codes in which they communicate. I knew already that there were strange echoes of Grose’s times still present in the secret argot – some of it Elizabethan, some influenced by Romany and Irish – used by prisoners, travellers and gang members in modern times. I knew, too that the multilingual free-for-all of Hogarth’s London has mutated into an even richer mix where Black and Asian cadences combine with native Cockney to produce excitingly novel vocabularies, accents, perhaps even new dialects.

Any treatment of Grose, his work and his world would have to take in the other pioneering slang enthusiasts who together compiled the ‘rogue literature’ of England, from the 16th century wastrel, Harman, through the succession of renegade magistrates, con-men, gamesters and grub-street hacks who followed in the same tradition of chronicling society’s underside and its language.

Though it’s not to be in any sense an autobiography, I would have to put into my book my own memories and experiences; anecdotes gathered during the years in which I tried on a series of identities – gang-member, dandy, provocateur, punk, yuppie, and dabbled in a variety of secret languages – polari, rhyming slang, ‘lifestyle’ and business jargon…

You can find some Grosean fragments that I have gathered here (look under Slang Articles, Francis Grose):

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/study/preparation-courses/tony-thorne/slang-and-new-language.aspx

Sadly the projected biography has yet to come to fruition – other things have intervened and publishers are now, more than then, reluctant to pay for an author’s research-time. I would be happy to see another writer take up the challenge and would be happy to assist them…otherwise I’ll wait on a Lottery win or an eager PhD student.

Back in 2011 the publication of a short Grose glossary prompted a conversation with Roland White of the Sunday Times. This is his article…

Pay attention, all you hopper-arsed hoddy doddys. Gather round, you dandyprats, Jerry Sneaks and jolter heads. Any ale drapers and mutton mongers at the back should sit up straight and stop fiddling with their inexpressibles. And if anybody else wants to know what that was all about, they should adjust their periwigs and read on.
In the age of the internet and instant communication we rather pride ourselves on the witty and imaginative way that we create new words. We speak in a rather smug, knowing way of affluenza and low-hanging fruit. For no useful reason we refer to mobile phones as blab slabs and use them to diss our frenemies among the Twitterati. All in all we consider ourselves at the cutting edge of clever. Yet our slang turns out to be flat and colourless compared with the vigour and invention of the 18th century, when the only technology available was a quill pen and the pox.
The late 1700s was an age of catch farts, flaybottomists, Norfolk dumplings and totty-headed mopseys. How the words just roll off the tongue. Back then it must have been a pleasure to have been insulted. And what now seems a golden age of invective is being celebrated in Lobcocks and Fartleberries, a new book that reprints extracts from a celebrated dictionary of slang first published in 1785.
As we know from the drawings of Hogarth and his contemporaries, England was teeming with drunks, rogues, beggars, tricksters and ne’er-do-wells. Life in the darker depths of society was so brutish that the upper crust lived in constant fear of the sort of revolution that would later grip France. Yet there was at least one man who seemed quite at home in this shadowy world: Captain Francis Grose. Born to a Swiss immigrant father, he was a former army officer, a connoisseur of antiques, an occasional caricaturist, a part-time journalist, a friend of the poet Robert Burns and above all something of a character.
Grose not only lived up to his name but also revelled in it. Almost as wide as he was tall, he had a voracious appetite for food and drink and a rollicking personality to match. If anybody now made a film of his life, Grose would almost certainly be played by Brian Blessed (although the actor would have to fatten up considerably for the role). In between eating, drinking and becoming slang’s answer to Dr Johnson, he still found time to produce 10 children, one of whom — also called Francis — became a general and the lieutenant-governor of New South Wales.
“Grose’s most abiding talent was to seek out the roisterers and the ne’er-do-wells, the cardsharps, cutpurses, highwaymen and low-lifers of Hogarthian London and listen to their repartee,” says Tony Thorne, author of the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, who is working on a biography of Grose. “In an age when both the nascent middle classes and the aristocracy lived in terror of revolution, it was courageous as well as unprecedented.”
Complete with his own Boswell-style sidekick called Tom Cocking, which itself sounds like 18th-century slang for something saucy, Grose toured the Hogarthian underworld and uncovered a list of about 2,000 words, which he published in his 1785 work A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Just under 250 of these words can be found in Lobcocks and Fartleberries — from addle-plot, a spoilsport, to zouch, a slovenly fellow (for the complete work you can download an 1811 edition from gutenberg.org).
Historians can tell a lot about an age from its slang. “You can see how important the military side of life was in the 18th century,” says Thorne, consultant at King’s College London. “Soldiering and its associated slang was very prevalent. Also, England was teeming with beggars and tricksters.”
Cant was the secret language of the rogues, beggars and vagabonds who peopled the underworld of early England
Because we are embarrassed to use the conventional words, slang down the ages has always found many ways of describing the sex organs, and the 18th century was no exception. For women, there was the madge, doodle sack, gigg or notch, while men had nutmegs, gingamabobs, plug tails and lobcocks. An apple dumplin shop described an ample cleavage, as did Cupid’s kettle drums. The original meaning of nincompoop, incidentally, was a man who had never set eyes on his wife’s madge or doodle sack.
By contrast, some of the colloquialisms of the time were very learned, using puns and allusions to Latin. Arbor vitae (tree of life) was yet another word for the penis, while an ambassador of Morocco was an elaborate term to describe a shoemaker. They don’t seem all that amusing to the modern eye but they were probably hilarious at the time.
Grose’s dictionary is rich in ways to describe slightly effeminate or silly men. He notes twiddle poop, fribble and — rather marvellously — tony. There were also many words for women who were either not as attractive as they might be or no better than they ought to be: trugs, toad eaters, sosse brangles, queans, hedge whores, gilflurts and laced mutton.
“What is surprising is how they used to laugh and mock, especially at fops and the effete,” says Thorne. “It wasn’t a gay thing and it certainly wasn’t cruel or nasty like some of the unpleasant phrases of the past 40-50 years. It seemed more affectionate. Even if we find certain sexual characteristics funny, we can’t do that any more. Back then it sounded gentle, although it might be the case that those words had a harsher ring to a contemporary audience.”
Many of the words and phrases uncovered by Grose and Cocking are still familiar today. Not just nincompoop, but also beetle-browed, old biddy, whipper-snapper, pettyfogging, thingamabob, a drubbing, hatchet-faced, bamboozle and balderdash — which now means nonsense but then referred to adulterated wine.
Other words and phrases have long fallen into misuse. Which is a pity, because after last week’s revelation that British people are the fattest in Europe, our language is crying out for a phrase such as hopper-arsed, which describes a man with a backside so large it juts out to the rear.
“You just can’t predict what will last,” says Thorne. “I haven’t been able to come up with any definitive characteristic that marks out words which have survived against those that haven’t. A lot of it comes down to human quirkiness and people’s affection for certain sounds and conjured images.
“Terms based on obvious, clear images or metaphors often survive — for example, bracelets for handcuffs. Many terms disappear because the cultural allusions they use, or ways of behaving they describe, simply become obsolete.”
“Babes in the wood” described criminals sitting in the stocks, a punishment that fell from favour in the middle of the 19th century. Be thankful also that we no longer need the term “vice-admiral of the narrow seas”, which described a drinker who urinated under the table into the shoes of his fellow revellers.
Grose’s work caught the public imagination, yet it was not the first dictionary of its kind. Researchers — many of them slightly disreputable — had been collecting such words since the early 1500s, but the first published compilation was A New Dictionary of Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1699 by somebody known only as “BE, Gent”.
This was recently reissued by the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library as The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699. Among the 4,000 entries you will find old friends such as chitchat and eyesore, but also dandyprat (a rather puny man; see also arsworm), fizzle (to break wind in a quiet, half-hearted sort of way) and bundletail (a short, fat woman). Would anybody join me in campaigning to bring back grumbletonians? This describes people who are constantly dissatisfied with life.
“Cant was the secret language of the rogues, beggars and vagabonds who peopled the underworld of early England,” writes John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in the introduction to the Bodleian edition. “The word ‘slang’ itself is not recorded by the OED until 1756. Short lists of canting vocabulary had been available in print since at least the early 16th century, but they had always been tucked away in longer texts. BE was the first person to present the canting tongue in dictionary form.”
Slang is pretty much universal. There are some small tribes that regulate language so strictly that innovation is impossible, but no country is too conservative to use slang, even if — like Japan and Slovenia, where Thorne also operates — it has to borrow it. Japan uses English slang, while Slovenia imports words from Serbia and Germany, which have a wide range of colourful insults and technical terms for sexual activity.
“Everybody uses slang, every sector of society,” says David Crystal, the English language guru (from Sanskrit guruh: weighty). “Doctors have their slang; journalists have their slang; academics have their slang. The chief use of slang is to show you’re one of the gang.”
And being part of a gang means you don’t want other gangs using your vocabulary. “Bling came in a few years ago among Jamaicans and they used it all over the place and that seemed a word they were going to use for ages,” says Crystal. “Then middle-class white people picked it up. As soon as that happened, the Jamaicans stopped using it. That’s the sort of thing that happens. It went out of use just because another group in society started using it.”
According to Crystal, three quarters of new words eventually disappear without trace. The ones that manage to cling on usually fulfil a linguistic need: “They are saying something that people couldn’t say before.” Some words disappear, only to resurface generations later. Dosh, ackers, spondulicks and wonga — all referring to money — were commonly heard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They fell from favour, only to be revived by the City workers of the yuppie 1980s.
Where do such words come from? Who first called somebody else a nincompoop? Which man — surely a man — glanced across at a woman and saw nothing but an apple dumplin shop? Who later described a female friend with a love of designer clothing as a “tag hag”?
The great beauty of slang is that nobody seems to know. “One of the things I find romantic is that these are coined by anonymous wits,” says Thorne. “We almost never know who first used these phrases. Quite a lot of people come to me and claim they invented something but it nearly always turns out that they’ve heard it elsewhere and registered it subconsciously. I don’t think I’ve ever found a provable originator of a famous slang phrase. It all happens underground and out of sight.”
At the end of the 19th century, lexicography became the province of the nerd and the geek. The first recorded slang, back in the 15th century, came from closed adult society. It was the language of the armed forces, of travellers and particularly the underworld. Slang usually begins as a secret code and then catches on in wider society. Down the years, wider society has worked its way through hippie slang, Oxbridge slang, public school slang, rhyming slang, hip-hop slang and — more recently — multicultural yoof slang.
Researchers have even identified which areas of life inspire the most phrases. Of these, the top three are: 1 Iconic areas of the group’s culture: drugs, drink and sex. Especially sex.
When Jonathon Green published his Dictionary of Slang in 1998, his publisher boasted it was the only book to feature 1,232 words for sexual intercourse, 997 ways to describe the penis, 856 words for vagina and 797 phrases for masturbation. 2 Terms of approval (wicked, brill, phat). 3 Ways to describe outsiders (nerds, geeks etc).
Thorne is a former hippie-turned-punk who draws on the inspiration of Grose in his work (punk, incidentally, was an 18th-century — or earlier — word meaning rent boy or prostitute). He goes direct to football hooligans, street gangs, students and teenagers to learn the latest words. He used to go clubbing as part of his research but, at the age of 59, now feels that he looks a little conspicuous.
“At the end of the 19th century, lexicography became the province of the nerd and the geek, but until then people were part of that demi-monde,” he says. “I try and emulate them. I have given up clubbing but I still talk to taxi drivers, criminals and gangs of young people. Without being pious, I think it’s important.”
His latest research has uncovered the following words:
From criminals and travellers — soolbick (mobile phone), children (drugs), warbs (the police).
From youth street talk — goon (a group of people), spud or cheez (very good), to wok (have sex), demmick or zep (chav), kidaani (a greeting used by Asian youths).
From students — bungalowed (drunk or exhausted), CBA (can’t be arsed), frape (from Facebook rape — illegal tampering with one’s profile page), neek (a cross between a nerd and a geek), SDW (secret degree working — studying hard while pretending not to).
Goons and frape aren’t a patch on flap dragon or betwattled — the 18th-century version of gobsmacked (thought to be late 19th-century Irish). Could it be that British society has become a little too posh?
As you get older and more comfortable you grow out of slang. “You tend to carry a little core of slang with you beyond the teenage years,” says Thorne, “but as you conform with bourgeois existence the opportunities to use slang diminish.”
And that’s when you discover you’ve turned into a complete and utter twiddle poop.
Lobcocks and Fartleberries: 18th Century Insults to Confound Your Foes, by Francis Grose, is published by Summersdale, £4.99.

The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699, by BE, is published by the Bodleian Library, £12.99.

The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, 4th edition, by Tony Thorne, is published by Bloomsbury,  £16.99

The monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes, by Jonathon Green, has , thanks to Jonathon’s generosity now been made available for free online: https://greensdictofslang.com/
Here is the entry for Francis Grose from “The General Biographical Dictionary” by Alexander Chalmers, F.S.A., 1814, Vol 16

GROSE (Francis)

GROSE, Francis, an eminent English antiquary, was the son of Mr. Francis Grose, of Richmond, jeweller, who died in 1769. He was born in 1731, and having a taste for heraldry and antiquities, his father procured him a place in the college of arms, which, however, he resigned in 1763. By his father he was left an independent fortune, which he was not of a disposition to add to or even to preserve. He early entered into the Surrey militia, of which he became adjutant and paymaster; but so much had dissipation taken possession of him, that in a situation which above all others required attention, he was so careless as to have for some time (as he used pleasantly to tell) only two books of accounts, viz. his right and left pockets. In the one he received, and from the other paid; and this too with a want of circumspection which may be readily supposed from such a mode of book-keeping. His losses on this occasion roused his latent talents: with a good classical education he united a fine taste for drawing, which he now began to cultivate; and encouraged by his friends, he undertook the work from which he derived both profit and reputation: his Views of Antiquities in England and Wales, which he first began to publish in numbers in 1773, and finished in 1776. The next year he added two more volumes to his English views, in which he included the islands of Guernsey and Jersey, which were completed in 1787. This work, which was executed with accuracy and elegance, soon became a favourite with the public at large, as well as with professed antiquaries, from the neatness of the embellishments, and the succinct manner in which he conveyed his information, and therefore answered his most sanguine expectations; and, from the time he began it to the end of his life, he continued without intermission to publish various works, generally to th advantage of his literary reputation, and almost always to the benefit of his finances. His wit and good-humour were the abundant source of satisfaction to himself and entertainment to his friends. He visited almost every part of the kingdom, and was a welcome guest wherever he went. In the summer of 1789 he set out on a tour in Scotland; the result of which he began to communicate to the public in 1790, in numbers. Before he had concluded this work, he proceeded to Ireland, intending to furnish that kingdom with views and descriptions of her antiquities, in the same manner he had executed those of Great Britain; but soon after his arrival in Dublin, being at the house of Mr. Hone there, he suddenly was seized at table with an apoplectic fit, on the 6th May 1791, and died immediately. He was interred in Dublin.

“His literary history,” says a friend, “respectable as it is, was exceeded by his good-humour, conviviality, and friendship. Living much abroad, and in the best company at home, he had the easiest habits of adapting himself to all tempers; and, being a man of general knowledge, perpetually drew out some conversation that was either useful to himself, or agreeable to the party. He could observe upon most things with precision and judgement; but his natural tendency was to humour, in which he excelled both by the selection of anecdotes and his manner of telling them: it may be said too, that his figure rather assisted him, which was in fact the very title-page to a joke. He had neither the pride nor malignity of authorship: he felt the independency of his own talents, and was satisfied with them, without degrading others. His friendships were of the same cast; constant and sincere, overlooking some faults, and seeking out greater virtues.”

Grose, to a stranger, says Mr. Noble, might have been supposed not a surname, but one selected as significant of his figure: which was more of the form of Sancho Pança than Falstaff; but he partook of the properties of both. He was as low, squat, and rotund as the former, and not less a sloven; equalled him to in his love of sleep, and nearly so in his proverbs. In his wit he was a Falstaff. He was the butt for other men to shoot at, but it always rebounded with a double force. He could eat with Sancho, and drink with the knight. In simplicity, probity, and a compassionate heart, he was wholly of the Pança breed; his jocularity could have pleased a prince. In the “St. James’s Evening Post,” the following was proposed as an epitaph for him:

“here lies FRANCIS GROSE.
On Thursday, May 21, 1791
Death put an end to his
Views and prospects.”

Mr. Grose married Catherine, daughter of Mr. Jordan, of Canterbury, by whom he had two sons and five daughters;
1. Francis Grose, of Croydon-Crook in Surrey, esq. a colonel in the army, governor in 1790 of new South Wales;
2. Onslow Grose, esq. captain of the pioneer corps on the Madras establishment, who died very lately in India; and four daughters, one of whom married to Anketel Singleton, esq. lieutenant-governor of Landguard-Fort, in Essex.

His works are, 1. “The Antiquities of England and Wales,” 8 vols. 4to and 8vo. 1. “The Antiquities of Scotland,” 2 vols. 4to and 8vo. 3. “The Antiquities of Ireland,“ 2 vols. 4to and 8vo, a posthumous work, edited by Mr. Ledwich, 1794. 4. “A Treatise on ancient Armour and Weapons,“ 1785, 4to. 5. “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1785, 8vo. 6. “Military Antiquities; being a history of the English Army from the Conquest to the present Time,” 1786, 1788, 2 vols. 4to. 7. “The History of Dover Castle, by the rev. William Darell,” 1786, 4to. 8. “A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of local Proverbs and popular Superstitions,” 1788, 8vo. 9. “Rules for drawing Caricatures,” 1788, 8vo. 10. “ Supplement to the Treatise on ancient Armour and Weapons,” 1789, 4to. 11. “A guide to the Health, Beauty, Honour, and Riches,” being a collection of humorous advertisements, pointing out the means to obtain those blessings; with a suitable introductory preface, 8vo. 12. “The Olio, a collection of Essays,” jests, small pieces of poetry, all highly characteristic of Mr. Grose, but the collection was not made by him, and we suspect all the contents are not from his pen; 1793, 8vo.[1]

[1] European mag. 1791—Gent. Mag. 1791.

Multiethnic London English – a Handbook

 

mle-final-book_tony_s

…and ICYMI, here’s the MLE glossary again:

mle-terms_tony-1

 

               *But please don’t try to monetise it. It is Chris Nott’s copyrighted work.

 

Multiethnic London English – a Glossary

“The post-racial, non-rhotic, inner city,

Th-fronting, cross cultural,

dipthong shifting, multi-ethnic,

L-vocalisation, K-backing fusion of language”

As a linguist and lexicographer who once worked as a designer, I have long nursed the idea that an iconic reference work, especially one which celebrates and explores creative, exotic and subversive forms of language, could – should – also function as a work of art.

In 2013 I had the privilege of helping Chris Nott in the preparation of his graduation project at the Royal College of Art. Chris designed a glossary of, and a guide to MLEMultiethnic London English – that functions as document and documentation as well as being a unique art object.

Chris, now working as a design specialist in the studios of Brody Associates, has given permission for this artefact to be shared for the first time. It consists of a glossary and a separate guidebook (which highlights the words from the glossary too)

Please do consult it, dip into it, read it from virtual cover to virtual cover, or, better still, print it on to high-quality paper and savour its tactility. Place it on a lectern under a strong light. Use it to teach your students, to inform your friends.*

The contents of this reference work, which includes contributions from other lexicographers and linguists, are still topical, relevant, revelatory three years on. The visual elements and format remain unique.

The samples of language and the commentaries presented in the book move our thinking beyond ‘slang’, beyond older notions of race and class, to consider the post-ethnic realities of a UK subject to what theorists now call Superdiversity, in which, especially but not only for younger speakers, complex questions of identity are bound up intimately with language, style and symbolism.

For me what is also essential in treating slang, dialect or jargon is to go out into the streets, the clubs, school playgrounds and workplaces and record the actual words of their users, words which might never otherwise appear in popular or academic publications.

MLE, Multiethnic London English, now sometimes referred to as Urban British English or Interethnic Vernacular was the designation given to a developing social dialect, featuring a slang vocabulary and new patterns of pronunciation and accent, that came to notice at the end of the 1990s and has since influenced the speech of younger speakers in particular beyond London itself.

Here is Chris Nott’s work. First the Glossary

mle-terms_tony-1

In a few days Chris’s 300-page Guidebook to MLE will be made available too

 

 

 

*But please don’t try to monetise it. It is Chris Nott’s copyrighted work.