An Antique Perspective: Slang in 1997

One of my tasks during this strange summer of 2021 was to try to recover old files and folders, deleted in error from my archive at King’s College London during a redesign of the website. Among them was a tour d’horizon of the characteristics and significance of Slang, written in 1997. Now an antique curio, I thought nevertheless it might be worth reproducing here for anyone teaching or learning about slang, or simply interested in that variety of language, so that comparisons could be made and conclusions might be drawn.

338 TATTOO - 1997 | Facebook

SLANG AND THE DICTIONARY


Tony Thorne  

Slang … an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably … the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallise.

  Walt Whitman, 1885

What is slang?

 Most of us think that we recognise slang when we hear it or see it, but exactly how slang is defined and which terms should or should not be listed under that heading continue to be the subject of debate in the bar-room as much as in the classroom or university seminar. To arrive at a working definition of slang the first edition of the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang approached the phenomenon from two slightly different angles. Firstly, slang is a style category within the language which occupies an extreme position on the spectrum of formality. Slang is at the end of the line; it lies beyond mere informality or colloquialism, where language is considered too racy, raffish, novel or unsavoury for use in conversation with strangers … So slang enforces intimacy. It often performs an important social function which is to include into or exclude from the intimate circle, using forms of language through which speakers identify with or function within social sub-groups, ranging from surfers, schoolchildren and yuppies, to criminals, drinkers and fornicators. These remain the essential features of slang at the end of the 1990s, although its extreme informality may now seem less shocking than it used to, and its users now include ravers, rappers and net-heads along with the miscreants traditionally cited.

There are other characteristics which have been used to delimit slang, but these may often be the result of prejudice and misunderstanding and not percipience. Slang has been referred to again and again as ‘illegitimate’, ‘low and disreputable’ and condemned by serious writers as ‘a sign and a cause of mental atrophy’(Oliver Wendell Holmes), ‘the advertisement of mental poverty’(James C. Fernal). Its in-built unorthodoxy has led to the assumption that slang in all its incarnations (metaphors, euphemisms, taboo words, catchphrases, nicknames, abbreviations and the rest) is somehow inherently substandard and unwholesome. But linguists and lexicographers cannot (or at least, should not) stigmatise words in the way that society may stigmatise the users of those words and, looked at objectively, slang is no more reprehensible than poetry, with which it has much in common in its creative playing with the conventions and mechanisms of language, its manipulation of metonymy, synechdoche, irony, its wit and inventiveness. In understanding this, and also that slang is a natural product of those ‘processes eternally active in language’, Walt Whitman was ahead of his time.

More recently some writers (Halliday being an influential example) have claimed that the essence of slang is that it is language used in conscious opposition to authority. But slang does not have to be subversive; it may simply encode a shared experience, celebrate a common outlook which may be based as much on (relatively) innocent enjoyment (by, for instance, schoolchildren, drinkers, sports fans, Internet-users) as on illicit activities. Much slang, in fact, functions as an alternative vocabulary, replacing standard terms with more forceful, emotive or interesting versions just for the fun of it: hooter or conk for nose, mutt or pooch for dog, ankle-biter or crumb-snatcher for child are instances. Still hoping to find a defining characteristic, other experts have seized upon the rapid turnover of slang words and announced that this is the key element at work; that slang is concerned with faddishness and that its here-today-gone-tomorrow components are ungraspable and by implication inconsequential. Although novelty and innovation are very important in slang, a close examination of the whole lexicon reveals that, as Whitman had noted, it is not necessarily transient at all. The word punk, for example, has survived in the linguistic underground since the seventeenth century and among the slang synonyms for money – dosh, ackers, spondulicks, rhino, pelf – which were popular in the City of London in the early 1990s are many which are more than a hundred years old. A well-known word like cool in its slang sense is still in use (and has been adopted by other languages, too), although it first appeared around eighty years ago.

Curiously, despite the public’s increasing fascination for slang, as evinced in newspaper and magazine articles and radio programmes, academic linguists in the UK have hitherto shunned it as a field of study. This may be due to a lingering conservatism, or to the fact that it is the standard varieties of English that have to be taught, but whatever the reasons the situation is very different elsewhere. In the US and Australia the study of slang is part of the curriculum in many institutions, in France, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe slang, and especially the slang of English, is the subject of more and more research projects and student theses; in all these places slang is discussed in symposia and in learned journals, while in Russia, China and Japan local editions of British and American slang dictionaries can be found on school bookshelves and in university libraries.

 Slang Lexicographers

The first glossaries or lexicons of European slang on record were lists of the verbal curiosities used by thieves and ne’er-do-wells which were compiled in Germany and France in the fifteenth century. A hundred years later the first English collections appeared under the titles The Hye Waye to the Spytell House, by Copland, Fraternite of Vacabondes, by Awdeley, and Caveat for Common Cursetours, by Harman. Although dramatists and pamphleteers of seventeenth-century England made spirited use of slang in their works, it was not until the very end of the 1600s that the next important compilation, the first real dictionary of slang, appeared. This was A New Dictionary of the Terms ancient and modern of the Canting Crew by ‘B. E. Gent’, a writer whose real identity is lost to us. In 1785, Captain Francis Grose published the first edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the most important contribution to slang lexicography until John Camden Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, 1859, which was overtaken its turn by Farmer and Henley’s more sophisticated Slang and its Analogues in 1890. All these were published in Britain and it was the New Zealander Eric Partridge’s single-handed masterwork A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, also published in London, in 1937, that, despite its lack of citations and sometimes eccentric etymologies, became the yardstick of slang scholarship at least until the arrival of more rigorously organised compendiums from the USA in the 1950s. Since then several larger reference works have been published, usually confining themselves to one geographical area and based mainly on written sources, together with a number of smaller, often excellent specialist dictionaries dealing with categories such as naval slang, Glaswegian slang, rhyming slang, the argot of police and criminals and the jargon of finance and high technology.

 The Bloomsbury Dictionary Of Contemporary Slang

The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang was first produced with the idea of combining the enthusiasms and instincts of a user of slang – someone who had been part of the subcultures and milieux where this language variety has flourished ( and in later life still ventures into clubs, bars, music festivals, football matches and, on occasion, homeless shelters) – with the methods of the modern lexicographer (earlier work on the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English being a particular influence) and applied linguist. The first edition set out to record the 6,000 or so key terms and 15,000-odd definitions which formed the core of worldwide English language slang from 1950 to 1990: the new, updated edition, published in Autumn 1997, extends the time-frame almost to the millennium and expands the number of entries by two thousand, losing a few obscure, doubtfully attested or just plain uninteresting terms in the process. The dictionary aims to pick up the elusive and picturesque figures of speech that really are in use out there in the multiple anglophone speech communities, and many terms which appear in its pages have never been recorded before. In keeping with the modern principles of dictionary-making, the headwords which are listed here are defined as far as possible in natural, discursive language. The modern dictionary ideally moves beyond mere definition and tries to show how a term functions in the language, who uses it and when and why, what special associations or overtones it may have, perhaps even how it is pronounced. Where possible a history of the word and an indication of its origin will be included and its usage illustrated by an authentic citation or an invented exemplary phrase or sentence.

As with all similar dictionaries, the Bloomsbury volume is based to some extent on consulting written sources such as newspapers, magazines, comic books, novels and works of non-fiction. Other secondary sources of slang are TV and radio programmes, films and song lyrics. Existing glossaries compiled by researchers, by journalists and by Internet enthusiasts were also checked, but treated, like fictional texts and broadcasts, with caution; investigators may be misled by their informants and, as society becomes more self-conscious in its treatment of new and unorthodox language, varieties of so-called slang appear that are only partly authentic, such as the gushing ‘teen-talk’ (a variety of journalese) appearing in UK magazines like Just Seventeen, My Guy or Sugar directed by twenty- and thirty-something journalists at their much younger readers, or the argot developed by writers for cult movies such as Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Wayne’s World and Clueless. The embellishing or inventing of slang is nothing new; Damon Runyon, Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse all indulged in it, as did British TV comedy writers for Porridge, Minder, Only Fools and Horses, etc., over the last three decades. For the Bloomsbury dictionary terms have been admitted if they can be verified from two or more sources, thereby, sadly, shutting out examples of idiolect (one person’s private language), restricted sociolects (terms shared by very small groups) and nonce terms (one-off coinages).

Any description of slang that is based purely on secondary or written sources (and most still are) cannot hope to do justice to a language which is primarily transmitted orally. Slang terms may exist in spoken usage for many years, even for centuries, before being written down; some are never committed to paper, so there is an absolute need for work ‘in the field’ with primary sources; eavesdropping on and interviewing the users of slang themselves, and, where they are not able to report objectively on the words and phrases they are using, their neighbours, parents, colleagues, fellow-students and friends must be mobilised. This is the most exciting part of lexicography, if sometimes the most risky. The modern language researchers going undercover to listen in on conversations or setting up networks of informants at street-level can imagine themselves as successors to the pioneering anthropologists of the last century, rather than ‘harmless drudges’ (Dr Johnson’s memorable definition of the lexicographer) toiling alone in dusty libraries or staring at flickering screens.

Slang at the Millennium

The traditional breeding grounds of slang have always been secretive, often disenfranchised social groups and closed institutions with their rituals and codes. This has not changed, although the users in question have. Where once it was the armed forces, the public schools and Oxbridge that in Britain dominated socially and linguistically, now it is the media, the comprehensive playground and the new universities which exercise most influence on popular language: the office, the trading-floor and the computer-room have replaced the workshop, the factory and the street-market as nurturing environments for slang. The street gang and the prison, whence came nearly all the ‘cant’ that filled the early glossaries, still provide a great volume of slang, as do the subcultures of rave, techno and jungle music, crusties and new agers, skaters and snowboarders. Football metaphors and in-jokes have long since ousted the cricketing imagery of yesteryear. Some special types of slang including pig-latin, infixing, and backslang (reversal, as in yob) seem virtually to have disappeared in the last few years, while the rhyming slang which arose in the early Victorian age continues to flourish in Britain and Australia, replenished by succeeding generations, and the even older parlyaree or polari (a romance/romany/yiddish lingua franca) lingers on in corners of London’s theatre-land and gay community. The effect of the media and more recently of the Internet means that slang in English can no longer be seen as a set of discrete localised dialects, but as a continuum or a bundle of overlapping vocabularies stretching from North America and the Caribbean through Ireland and the UK on to South Africa, South and East Asia and Australasia. Each of these communities has its own peculiarities of speech, but instantaneous communications and the effect of English language movies, TV soaps and music means that there is a core of slang that is common to all of them and into which they can feed. The feeding in still comes mainly from the US, and to a lesser extent Britain and Australia; slang from other areas and the slang of minorities in the larger communities has yet to make much impression on global English, with one significant exception. That is the black slang which buzzes between Brooklyn, Trenchtown, Brixton and Soweto before, in many cases, crossing over to pervade the language of the underworld, teenagers ( – it is the single largest source for current adolescent slang in both the UK and US), the music industry and showbusiness. Within one country previously obscure local slang can become nationally known, whether spread by the bush telegraph that has always linked schools and colleges or by the media: Brookside, Coronation Street, Rab C. Nesbitt and Viz magazine have all helped in disseminating British regionalisms. This mixing-up of national and local means that past assumptions about usage may no longer hold true: the earnest English traveller, having learned that fag and bum mean something else in North America, now finds that in fashionable US campus-speak they can actually mean cigarette and backside. In the meantime the alert American in Britain learns that cigarettes have become tabs or biffs and backside is now often rendered by the Jamaican batty

Speakers of English everywhere seem to have become more liberal, admitting more and more slang into their unselfconscious everyday speech; gobsmacked, O.T.T, wimp and sorted can now be heard among the respectable British middle-aged; terms such as horny and bullshit which were not so long ago considered vulgar in the extreme are now heard regularly on radio and television, while former taboo terms, notably the ubiquitous British shag , occur even in the conversation of young ladies. In Oakland, California, the liberalising process reached new extremes late in 1996 with the promotion of so-called Ebonics : black street speech given equal status with the language of the dominant white culture. 

Youthspeak

The greatest number of new terms appearing in the new edition of the dictionary are used by adolescents and children, the group in society most given to celebrating heightened sensations, new experiences and to renaming the features of their world, as well as mocking anyone less interesting or younger or older than themselves. But the rigid generation gap which used to operate in the family and school has to some extent disappeared. Children still distance themselves from their parents and other authority figures by their use of a secret code, but the boomers – the baby boom generation – grew up identifying themselves with subversion and liberalism and, now that they are parents in their turn, many of them are unwilling either to disapprove of or to give up the use of slang, picking up their children’s words (often much to the latters’ embarrassment) and evolving their own family-based language (helicopters, velcroids, howlers, chap-esses are examples).

The main obsessions among slang users of all ages, as revealed by word counts, have not changed; intoxication by drink or drugs throws up (no pun intended) the largest number of synonyms; lashed, langered, mullered and hooted are recent additions to this part of the lexicon. These are followed by words related to sex and romance –copping off, out trouting, on the sniff and jam, lam, slam and the rest – and the many vogue terms of approval that go in and out of fashion among the young (in Britain ace, brill, wicked and phat have given way to top, mint, fit and dope which are themselves on the way out at the time of writing). The number of nicknames for money, bollers, boyz, beer-tokens, squirt and spon among them, has predictably increased since the materialist 1980s and adolescent concern with identity-building and status-confirming continues to produce a host of dismissive epithets for the unfortunate misfit, some of which, like wendy, spod, licker, are confined to the school environment while others, such as trainspotter, anorak and geek, have crossed over into generalised usage.

Other obsessions are more curious; is it the North American housewife’s hygiene fetish which has given us more than a dozen terms (dust-bunny, dust-kitty, ghost-turd, etc.) for the balls of fluff found on an unswept floor, where British English has only one (beggars velvet)? Why do speakers in post-industrial Britain and Australia still need a dozen or more words to denote the flakes of dung that hang from the rear of sheep and other mammals, words like dags, dangleberries, dingleberries, jub-nuts, winnets and wittens? Teenagers have their fixations, finding wigs (toop, syrup, Irish, rug) and haemorrhoids (farmers, Emma Freuds, nauticals) particularly hilarious. A final curiosity is the appearance in teenage speech fashionable vogue terms which are actually much older than their users realise: once again referring to money, British youth has come up with luka ( the humorous pejorative “filthy lucre” in a new guise), Americans with duckets (formerly “ducats”, the Venetian gold coins used all over Renaissance Europe).

 This introductory article is adapted from the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, 2nd edition, 1997.

MTV VMAs: Flashback to the 1997 show | EW.com

For other articles on Slang on this site see below or enter keyword (slang, MLE, youth language) in the search box

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES: CAN KIDS SAFELY LEARN…SLANG??

I have been trying to tell the world for a long time that slang is a rich, creative and complex feature of language, and one which has great social and cultural significance. I have argued (again and again) against those who want to ban or censor it and have advocated instead teaching young people about it so that they can judge for themselves its qualities and refine their own usage of it where necessary. What I have hesitated to do is to actually ‘teach slang’ to younger learners, knowing that it is still a controversial (linguists use terms like ‘stigmatised’ and ‘transgressive’) variety which makes many parents, teachers and authority figures uncomfortable. Connie Chang, writing for the National Geographic asked me whether it could ever be possible to teach slang to younger children without risk. In her published article, quoting experts in the field, she describes some interesting developments which suggest a positive answer.

Here is Connie’s article, followed by some further thoughts and some links which illustrate and explore the issues raised. I hope these, along with other articles on this site (put ‘slang‘, ‘MLE‘, ‘youth language‘ into the search box or check the tags at the foot of the page) will help students and teachers, and language-buffs, too, who are ready to explore the language ecosystem in which slang flourishes and operates…

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/family/article/dude-your-kids-slang-isnt-as-bad-as-you-think

Teen Slang: The Complete Parent's Guide + Infographic | by Netsanity

Experimenting with language and inventing new language begins naturally in children as soon as they move from making noises to uttering more complex sounds. The creation by babies of seemingly meaningful sound combinations and, soon after, approximations of words is known as jargoning. Toddlers will make up words, participate in babytalk and banter and soon join their older siblings and other family members in inventing nicknames for objects in the home – part of the private domestic language known as familect. As young people encounter new experiences in growing up – dating, grappling with parents and teachers, following fashions and admiring celebrities, and experiment with new behaviour – they often feel they need a new language to describe these things and to convey the novel and intense feelings they have. Adults don’t have a vocabulary for ‘jumping up and grabbing someone’s sweater from behind’, (‘glomping’) or ‘coolest boy in the class’, (‘peng-ting’) so kids need to create their own. Young people also don’t want adults to know what they are up to or what they are feeling, hence the online and messaging codes and abbreviations (‘POS’ for ‘parent over shoulder’, ‘FOMO’ for fear of missing out) and the new, exotic and, for parents and teachers, impenetrable language. In the UK and the US there have been many not-entirely-serious guides for parents to help them…

https://www.dove.com/uk/dove-self-esteem-project/help-for-parents/family-friends-and-relationships/a-guide-to-understanding-teenage-language.html

Slang’s power and resonance is that it’s an alternative, subversive language and that for people who don’t understand it, slang can make them uncomfortable and can feel like a violation of social norms. The 19th century US author Ambrose Bierce defined slang in his Devil’s Dictionary as follows: ‘The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his ear, and feels the pride of a creator in accomplishing the feat of a parrot. A means (under Providence) of setting up as a wit without a capital of sense.’  He may have been being ironic but this was certainly the view of many at that time, witness this report of a Victorian lecture…

Strong disapproval of slang continues in the 21st century. Some years ago I debated with Lindsey Johns, at that time campaigning publicly against those like me who he accused of promoting ‘ghetto grammar’ in the UK…

https://www.standard.co.uk/hp/front/ghetto-grammar-robs-the-young-of-a-proper-voice-6433284.html

In the US linguistic conservatism takes many forms…

https://www.eater.com/2014/11/11/7193179/chick-fil-a-manager-bans-unprofessional-teen-slang

Not all recent commentaries are condemnations: here, an interesting take on the significance of slang for young speakers with autism…

https://jtrebat.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/teaching-slang-and-idioms/

‘WOKE’ NOT WOKE

activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral

The Woke and the Un-Woke - Tablet Magazine

UK feature-writer Sirin Kale took to Twitter last week to voice a complaint heard often recently, particularly from the ‘left’ and ‘centre-left’: ‘I would really like it if people stopped using “anti-woke” and “woke” as lazy journalistic descriptors when they can’t be bothered to actually spell out what a person’s views are. Say what they believe and the reader can decide for ourselves what we think of it.’ In the ensuing conversation @yoyomorena was blunt: ‘The sooner we can understand ‘woke’ as the anti-black, racist code it has become, the sooner we can get back to normal lives.’ Yesterday, on the same platform, a query by Tom Whyman pointed up the way a once-proud self-ascription by the socially aware had fully transited to become the go-to pejorative for conservative journalists and politicians, fighting back, as they see it, against an array of enemies: ‘Is it me or have the right wing press in the past few weeks started using the word ‘woke’ as if it refers to an organised political tendency, as opposed to just a loosely arranged constellation of things they don’t like?’ As if to furnish instant corroboration a Telegraph headline of the same date announced…

Image result for Citizens advice service' launches to help employees in woke

Citizens advice service’ launches to help employees in woke workplaces

The organisation will provide help to ‘casualties of the culture wars’

London journalist Kate Ng had asked me about the same red-flag-buzzword last week and her subsequent piece in the Independent is here…

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/woke-meaning-word-history-b1790787.html

As it has morphed from positive to negative in its connotations, (by 2019 Urban Dictionary‘s top definitions were emphatically negative: ‘The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’ and ‘Deluded or fake awareness’) woke has spawned elaborations along the way: woke-washing, by analogy with whitewashing and greenwashing, was coined to describe brands attempting to use, or at least proclaim, a concern for social justice as a marketing strategy; wokerati, woke-worthies and woke warriors dismiss critics of white privilege and social inequality, while Wokeahontas was invented in the US to define and mock a female enthusiast for native American rights.

The question that Kate and I had discussed briefly has not, I think, been raised before: must the victims of sneering and jeering by powerful opponents abandon their identity label, attempt somehow to reclaim it, or find a substitute for it? I canvassed an assortment of people, most of them it must be said not identifying as conservatives, on possible candidates to replace ‘woke’. Nobody suggested the words that progressives of my own generation once embraced; ‘radical’ or ‘liberationist’, but this is no surprise. The first now sounds ambiguous while the second was appropriated by neocons and conservatives in the US more than a decade ago. No real workable favourites emerged and no consensus was reached, but the formulations we considered are gathered in this wordcloud for what it’s worth…

An earlier article in the Guardian traces in some detail the trajectory that ‘woke’ has undergone, with useful comments on the controversies accompanying its mutation…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/21/how-woke-became-the-word-of-our-era

Why Any Literate Person Should Never Use the Word 'Woke' Ungrammatically -  Daily Squib

In March, after two months of articles in the conservative press excoriating the ‘woke agenda’ and its followers, came news, via the Sun, that steps were being taken to curb the influence of leftwing comedy…

https://www.thesun.co.uk/tv/14311062/bbc-tim-davie-axes-nish-kumar-the-mash-report/

In April Clyde McGrady wrote in The Washington Post about the parallel history of ‘cancel’, conservative America’s scare-word of choice…

And in the Guardian Evan Smith suggested that the UK right’s ‘war on woke’ is nothing new…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/21/conservatives-war-on-woke-loony-left-political-correctness?CMP=fb_cif

Finally, in late April, I came across a Twitter thread by Joshua Adams which sets out perceptively and pithily the links between the word’s transitions and Black responses to it…

JOSHUA@JournoJoshua Hope folks realize that a part of the reason the Right pounced on “woke” and now use it as a meaningless catch-all pejorative is because folks on the Left stripped it from its context in the Black experience, and made it mean “excessive social awareness.” It didn’t mean that.

GANGS, SLANGS – AND DRILL

An update on the unusual role of an ‘expert linguist witness’

UK gang members | Gang member, Gang crime, Gang culture

Elsewhere on this site I have written about the ‘street slang‘ used by gang members and other young people in the UK, a variety of language also featuring in the lyrics of Drill and other rap music genres. In October 2020 I was invited by the Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics to talk about my role in translating and commenting on this language in the context of criminal investigations and trials.

My contribution to this event, with those of other specialists, together with some answers to follow-up questions from the virtual audience can be accessed here…

https://www2.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/lss-research/forensic-linguistics/research-seminars/new-urban-varieties

Trapped in the Gangs Matrix | Amnesty International UK

The prosecution of actual or supposed gang members, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and are victims themselves of coercion, trafficking, even modern slavery, is hugely controversial, as are attempts by some law enforcers to criminalise Drill music, its performers and its enthusiasts and the language that it uses.*

Rap lyrics appear to be poetic or literary texts, and may be fictional, but many professional rappers and their amateur imitators routinely mix creative fiction conventions, metaphors and imagery with real-life facts, introducing real names and references to real places, incidents and actions for ‘authenticity’ and effect. They also frequently borrow or steal images, words and whole sequences from other rappers, and impersonate actors in the real world such as killers or drug dealers who they have learned about from media reports or by word of mouth on the street.

Even more confusingly, many young rap enthusiasts nowadays use the language of rap and its lyrical conventions when they are communicating in quite different contexts. I have encountered many examples of messages between friends, entries in journals or prison notebooks, editing an online persona for chatting in forums, etc. that use words, phrases and references familiar from lyrics as used in audio/video music performances.

There are now academics and activists seeking to question official attitudes to the policing of youth crime and to question the validity of presenting rap or rap-related lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing.* There are also currently many agencies, charities and other stakeholders working with young victims, young perpetrators and their families and friends in order to analyse, publicise and seek solutions for the social stresses that foster gang culture. For my small part, I’m concerned, though, that these efforts, even the well organised periodic campaigns by police to control and reduce ‘knife crime,’ are still piecemeal and only partially coordinated across the country.

Trapped in the Gangs Matrix | Amnesty International UK

In November I talked on the same subject at Warwick University‘s Applied Linguistics Seminar…

May be an image of 1 person and hair

One month on, and a small sign that mainstream media may be paying a little more attention to gang realities…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/newsbeat-55302854?__twitter_impression=true

*In May 2021 many of these issues were summarised in a post by Keir Monteith QC

https://www.gardencourtchambers.co.uk/news/rap-and-the-states-double-whammy-lack-of-expert-challenge-to-racist-stereotyping

Thus is rappers Krept and Konan’s 2019 commentary on the driller’s culture and attempts to ban drill lyrics. Essential reading/listening for anyone struggling to untangle the unresolved complexities of the issue…

https://beelyrics.net/music/12136-krept-konan/4628167-ban-drill-lyrics.html

In September 2021 Vice magazine ran a feature focusing on the role of social media, video and messaging in street violence…

WE CAN BE HEROES

Medieval Female Scribe - Archaeology Magazine

In 1821 the poet Shelley claimed that poets were – are – ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ I would not for a moment dispute that, but would add others to the list of unsung heroes, essential to our cultural wellbeing but toiling in obscurity and anonymity. Lexicographers, despite Dr Johnson‘s dismissal of us as ‘harmless drudges’, translators, interpreters, editors all deserve the gratitude of everyone who reads, perhaps even deserve a metaphorical moment in the sun.

I was given another chance to venture into the late summer sunshine by translation specialist and editor Isabella Massardo who asked me about life as a drudge and about other topical issues...

I was also interviewed by Marie Billon, UK correspondent for RTL and RFI, about the latest British ‘portmanteau’ acronyms and jargon, now attempting to describe the co-occurrence of the pandemic and the final stages of the Brexit process (my contribution, partly in rusty French, is at 14 minutes in)…

https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/20200916-covid-19-comment-%C3%A9viter-la-deuxi%C3%A8me-vague

There are other hitherto little-known or unknown linguists – teachers, students, language enthusiasts among them – who also deserve our attention. One such, Sameer Merali, interviewed another such – Zobia, a real life user of youth slang – and me for his SLANGuage podcast series…

Mind your language: Here's how you can stop being basic and learn Gen Z  slang for a lit experience - art and culture - Hindustan Times

In October I took part in a debate on current language issues, hosted by Cumberland House. The discussion ranged across the language of ethnicity, diversity and inclusion, the language of youth and the notion of ‘political correctness’ and the policing of comedy and creativity…

https://www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk/read-watch-listen/dialogue-debate-mind-your-language?fbclid=IwAR2A0_WH6AU3SVNvUjDqqhwZYs2ytYnUVvZ-vSG7yuwK6sLqLGRhg9Q6HFA

To return to the poor lexicographer’s standing, or lack of it, an eminent practitioner of the craft, Jeremy Butterfield, sent this resonant quote on the subject…

“Dictionary-making, while it obviously demands high scholarly qualifications, is commonly regarded as the graveyard of academic careers, and it is precisely those who have what it takes to whom we would be most loath to commend such an undertaking.” – Prof. W. Atkinson (1902-1992), Glasgow University 1961

The End of Summer in Locktown

FIRST REFLECTIONS ON CORONATIMES

7525CC9A-6E1E-4569-926F-CF9C6803D955_Tony Thorne

Ironically, the self-isolation I have been practising for the last seven months did not mean that I was without work. Periods of WFH alternated with forays into an empty city. Youth crime subsided at first but did not disappear during the pandemic: importantly for me the gathering and analysis of evidence and preparations for trials involving gang violence continued, and I continued to help defence teams and prosecutors to interpret the language used in messaging and Drill lyrics generated by suspects living in gang environments (as described in earlier posts on this site). In April I wrote an article for the Magistrates Association about the relationships between language, youth and crime*

During my time in quarantine I continued to record and comment on the language of the pandemic itself as well as the toxic terminology of populist politics and racism. At the beginning of September the team at Lexis Podcast gave me a fresh opportunity to talk about these topics (my comments are in the second half of the recording)…

I had time, too, to write a profile of the humble, enigmatic London outsider artist, known only as Albert, for Raw Vision magazine…

https://rawvision.com/articles/ideal-homes-imaginary-elevations

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* THE WORD ON THE STREET

‘Bad language’ and why you should really try to keep up

Studies have shown that the language of the court can be intimidating and perplexing for some of those who pass through it. We naturally hope that all of those involved in legal proceedings have sufficient command of a language in common to conduct their business successfully. There are times, however, when language barriers become apparent and it becomes necessary to interpret, to translate – foreign tongues used by other nationalities of course – but also new and unfamiliar language originating in our own communities.

Language is something that we tend to take for granted; it’s a facility that every human possesses and uses constantly. In the workplace we have to depend on a shared understanding of language, whether formal, legalistic or conversational. Professional linguists, however, see language differently and distinguish not only between informal, conversational speech and formal or technical language, but between a ‘dialect’ – the language of a region, a ‘sociolect’ – the language of a particular group such as a specific profession, ethnic group, age-group or social class, and even an ‘idiolect’, the words, phrases and turns of speech favoured by a single individual.

The closer we look at the language people are using, the more potential there is for misunderstanding. There is the problem of keeping abreast of rapid changes – of learning new terms, making sense of popular entertainment catchphrases and reality TV references, for example (‘Love Island’ springs to mind). Perhaps the problem is most acute when it’s the language of another generation. Parents, teachers, police officers, too, struggle to make sense of the latest playground slang, gamers’ terminology and the bizarre expressions uttered by music fans, fashionistas and YouTube stars. Abbreviations used in texting and on social media  – YOLO, FOMO, SMH (‘you only live once’, ‘fear of missing out’, ‘shaking my head’) can also be baffling for older observers – not surprisingly because this sort of language is not designed to be understood by outsiders. Insiders use slang as a badge of identity to show that they belong to a particular group, equally it is used to exclude the people they don’t want to associate with; the old, the boring, the unfashionable and the unglamorous. Many users of slang, though, are surprisingly sensitive to what linguists call ‘appropriacy’ – matching their choice of language to the social situation – and wouldn’t employ a highly informal style in a formal setting such as a court. Problems arise when evidence involves language recorded in very different contexts.

If you struggle to understand the teenagers and young people around you when they call their schoolfriend a ‘durkboi’ or a ‘wasteman’ (both mean useless male) and try to cadge some ‘p’s’, ‘gwop’ or ‘Lizzies’ (all slang for money), you are not alone. There is a shared slang vocabulary that has established itself throughout the UK, often replacing colourful older usages (such as rhyming slang: ‘once a week’, a synonym of ‘beak’ or magistrate has disappeared) or local dialect. Popular words include ‘piff’, ‘peng’, ‘dench’, ‘gully’, all used to express admiration, ‘bare’ meaning many (as in ‘bare feds’ or ‘bare jakes‘, lots of police), ‘bait’ meaning obvious, ‘bruv’ and ‘fam’ denoting one’s friends or group. ‘Chirpsin’, ‘linkin’ and ‘lipsin’ refer to flirting, dating and kissing respectively.

New terms are being coined all the time because novelty is what gives the words their edgy, progressive quality, but, contrary to what many people assume, slang doesn’t fall out of use for years, it just moves from an older to a younger cohort; as it’s abandoned by the most self-consciously ‘cool’ it is picked up by the latecomers. A few parents and some teachers have managed to learn some of these terms, but trying to use them will inevitably provoke ridicule. In a 2017 survey only 4% of parents were able to successfully translate messaging slang, while 65% tried but repeatedly failed or misunderstood.

Slang, whether used covertly or out in the open, is a feature of all societies and languages and of all age-groups, too. It’s well established that those engaged in criminal activity, lawlessness or antisocial behaviour develop their own secret languages in order to communicate privately and to prevent outsiders from understanding these communications. Teenagers and young adults likewise develop their own slangs and restricted terminologies and often include vocabulary coined by gang members and criminals because it seems glamorous and daring. In the US and the UK highly informal youth-based dialects have arisen and the terminology in question is also used in music lyrics and on social media. The language of US rap and hip-hop music and UK–based varieties such as Grime or Drill music mixes AfricanCaribbean influences, especially Jamaican ‘patois’, with local colloquial speech and will be familiar to many young people, even those who are not engaged in antisocial or criminal activity. This kind of language is very rarely picked up by mainstream media, is not normally recorded in standard dictionaries and is difficult for linguists to collect. I do so by monitoring online messaging and online discussions among slang enthusiasts or slang users, examining music lyrics and, most importantly, by interviewing slang users themselves (as slang is still more a spoken than written variety) and asking them to give or send me examples of language used by them and their peers. Slang is not deficient language; it performs its functions efficiently in conveying meaning. However, because it is an underground, alternative code it is not subject to rules and authorities. This can often result in the same slang term having multiple meanings (hood, for example can refer to a criminal ‘hoodlum’ or to the neighbourhood in which they operate) and in meanings varying to some extent between one group of users and another. It also means that (because they are based on speech and not on written sources) the spellings of slang terms may vary and may be used inconsistently.

I have been collecting 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. As a linguist I became fascinated by a kind of language that, although exotic, anti-social, irreverent and frequently offensive is technically as complex and as creative as poetry or literature. It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of teenage cliques, young-adult in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings.

For more than a decade, and increasingly over 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 still in their teens or early twenties). 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 distressed by what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, shocking 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, an expert who can stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.

In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a ‘burner’ or a ‘mash’ is a handgun; ‘dotty’ means shotgun, ‘Rambo’, ‘ramsay’, ‘cutter’, ‘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 gang culture with its obsession with status and respect, its territorial feuding and its violent tendencies seems to apply everywhere.

Nobody expects the average adult, even if an educated, articulate professional to be fluent either in the language of innocent teenagers or the criminal codes used by gang members. Where, then, can a legal professional or law enforcer go in order to get help with slang and street language? Standard published dictionaries do not offer much assistance, even dictionaries specialising in slang do not usually manage to keep up to date and to define and explain the latest terms. Magazine features purporting to explain what millennials and Generation Z are saying are invariably frivolous and inaccurate. One valuable resource is the online Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) a collection of language posted on the internet by real people. Its entries are up to date and usually authentic, but more than half of the expressions on the site originate in the USA and some of the posts are private jokes or local nicknames. There is a small dictionary of the language of rappers and gangsters on my own website (https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/), and I can answer general slang enquiries at The King’s College Archive if contacted at tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk.

A FRESH START – the lingo of the local(e)

I helped with the preparation of a language guide designed for UK students starting out on their courses this week. Based on a survey and on contributions from across the country the lighthearted but comprehensive guide highlights the dialect differences and the local slang expressions that freshers may encounter when they move to a new area to begin their studies.

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With over 495,000 UK students set to depart for three years in a new university town, online learning platform, Quizlet (www.quizlet.com), has worked with local councils, poets, and language experts, to help students learn, understand, and use regional slang relevant to their new university town homes, through curated online study sets.

Working with institutions including the University of Bristol, This Is Edinburgh, Manchester Voices, and Liverpool City Council, Quizlet hopes to encourage students to learn the regional slang and dialect of their new home, in order to help build relationships between undergraduates and the local community, with a parallel survey of Quizlet’s student users revealing that 23% visit their university town only once before moving, and 11% never visit at all.

With essential phrases hand-picked by local experts, Quizlet is hosting regional slang study sets, covering the 20 biggest undergraduate populations as defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (www.hesa.ac.uk).

The study sets include over 160 dialectic words and phrases in total covering locations from Devon to Dundee, and Exeter to Edinburgh.

Example phrases include:

· ‘Antwacky’ means ‘Old-fashioned’ in Liverpool

Use in a sentence: “Your furniture is antwacky” / “Your furniture is old-fashioned”

Provided by Liverpool City Council

· ‘Gannin’ yem’ means ‘Going home’ in Newcastle

“I’m gannin’ yem on the train” / “I’m going home by train”

Lisa Matthews, Northern Poetry Library poet & author

· ‘It’s dark over Albert’s mother’s’ means ‘It’s getting cloudy’ in Manchester

“It’s dark over Albert’s Mother’s this afternoon!” / “It’s getting cloudy this afternoon”

Dr Erin Carrie, Project Manager of Manchester Voices

· ‘Half-soaked’ means ‘Slow-witted’ in Birmingham

“He’s a bit half-soaked he is” / “He’s not very clever”

Matt Windle, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2016-2018

· ‘Ginger’ means ‘A fizzy drink’ in Glasgow

“Gie’s a bottla ginger” / “hand me that bottle of pop”

Stuart Paterson, BBC Scotland Poet in Residence 2017-2018

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The full list of phrases and downloadable study sets can be found at:

http://www.quizlet.com/en-gb/content/british-slang

Richard Gregory, VP of International at Quizlet, comments: “Many of us will remember how nerve-wracking those initial university days are. Dozens of faces and names to remember, all in the backdrop of a new city. We created this resource to try and mitigate those university jitters: teaching students about their new surroundings through the important pillars of language and culture. The relationship between students and the local population can sometimes be a challenge, and that’s why all these language experts wanted to get on board to help us bridge linguistic divides.”

How connected do students feel to their university homes? To coincide with the regional language study sets, Quizlet polled over 1,030 students (aged 17-24) across the UK, to understand perceptions towards university towns:

A tenth of students ‘never’ visit their university town, before moving

44% of respondents said they had visited their new home ‘twice or three times’ before moving, while 23% admitted to having visited just ‘once’. Just 22% of students said they had visited ‘multiple’ times before moving, while 11% had ‘never’ visited their university location before making the move.

Nearly half of students don’t use or understand any local dialect words

Students can be reticent to use local dialect words in their new home, with 51% stating they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ use and understand local dialect or phrases, but the other 49% said they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do.

Students believe locals generally perceive them positively

62% of students believe that local residents have a positive view of them, with students in Cambridge perceiving the most positive relationship (78%). However, 38% of students feel that local residents are ‘negative’ or ‘indifferent’ to them, with students in Durham expressing the worst relationship (65%).

…Although the majority ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ socialise with locals

28% of students asked stated they ‘rarely’ had social interactions with people outside of their university, while 16% stated they ‘never’ socialised with residents. This is in comparison with the 34% who said they ‘sometimes’ spoke and made friendships, while 22% would say they ‘often’ socialised with locals.

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I thought it might be interesting to compare the language listed in this new guide with the expressions I recorded at King’s College in London nearly two decades ago. For the curious my article from all those years ago is here…

Student slang as she is spoke – your passport to the in-crowd

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Tony Thorne 

Among all the guidance notes, union leaflets, maps and schedules that make up the Fresher’s welcome pack there is one aspect of student life that will almost certainly not be covered. No institution, however enlightened, is likely to provide you with that vital accessory, the key to unlocking the mysteries of undergraduate existence, the passport to instant social acceptance by your peers; a glossary of the very latest student slang.

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Like any other group leading a self-contained existence outside the social mainstream, students have evolved a private language through which they can label one another, celebrate their shared pleasures, and keep the rest of the world at arm’s length. For at least two centuries the argot of Oxbridge and the public schools enriched the English language (respectable words like ‘mob’ and ‘(omni)bus’ probably started out as student witticisms) Wodehousian

On North American campuses where life is more highly ritualised, with initiation ceremonies, sorority and fraternity-house customs, popularity contests and the rest, there is a vast and ever-changing vocabulary of status

It’s interesting to compare the way the two nationalities talk about the same staples of student existence; for instance ‘aardvark’ in Britain is hard work, while in the US ‘aardvarking’ is engaging in sexual fumbling; ‘we’d better leave’ is rendered as ‘Let’s bail’ or Let’s book’ in the US, ‘Let’s chip’ or ‘Let’s duss’ over here. Boring misfits -the butt of witticisms on both continents are known as ‘lorgs’ in the US, ‘nargs’ in the UK, while an attractive American male is is a ‘jordan’, his British equivalent a ‘smacker’. It used to be that we imported our more fashionable terms from the US – ‘groovy’, far-out’ and ‘fuzz’ in the Sixties, and ‘nerd’, ‘wimp’ and ‘geek’ a decade later, for instance, but a large proportion of today’s vocabulary comes from Black British and Caribbean speech; ‘mampy’ and ‘butters’ (ugly), ‘roasting’ (sexually frustrated) and ‘bruck’ (ruined) are among the best known.

Home-grown rhyming slang is also alive and well and new examples are being coined all the time.’Claire Rayners’ are trainers, often worn with a pair of Steve McQueens, If a piece of work is too easy it’s a ‘Glen’ (-Hoddle; a doddle)’, but perhaps in any case you don’t give a Kate Moss. If you want to borrow a ten-pound note to buy some ‘Richard’ (Gere-beer), it’s cooler to demand an Ayrton (Senna) or a Pavarotti (tenor – get it?), but promise to return it ‘Christian Slater’ and not too ‘Terry Waite’.

Some of the buzzwords and catchphrases used by British students are peculiar to just one university or college, others are invented and swapped among micro-groups made up of just a handful of friends, but there is another large core of expressions which are used and understood with minor variations right across the country. At King’s College London, students have been donating examples of their current argot for the last three years to a research project that will eventually yield a new dictionary of ‘youthspeak’

It’s often assumed that slang is something ephemeral, but it isn’t as simple as that:
words do come in and out of fashion, particularly the words that bestow approval, the successors to yesteryear’s ‘fab’, ‘ace’, ‘brill’ are ‘wick’, ‘dare’, and ‘dope’, but many are recycled and some oldies -‘cool’, ‘sorted’ and ‘shag’ are examples – seem to linger year after year. One remarkable feature is the number of words that mean the same thing: there are hundreds of words for drunk, including ‘gurning’, ‘wazzed’, ‘mashup’, ‘ratted’, ‘faced’, scores to denote idiots (‘chief’, ‘choad’, ‘hole’, ‘smurf’), and dozens of synonyms for exciting, such as ‘kicking’, ‘slamming’ ‘blamming’ and ‘storming’.

The picture of student life that emerges from the King’s survey is a happy disregard for work (almost no slang refers to books, lectures or libraries), and a very pronounced dedication to all things hedonistic.

To boost the confidence of the uninitiated, here is a shortlist of current expressions, culled from the study at King’s and donations from students at several other institutions in the Southeast. Understand them – but stop and think before you drop them into the conversation; there’s nothing more shame-making than a newcomer desperately trying to be hip. And the wrong word in the wrong place can result either in roars of derision or a hideous strained silence – as you mumble “I’ll get my coat.”

 A QUICK GUIDE FOR THE UNINITIATED

Arm candy…a fellow student borrowed as an escort for a social function

Catalogue man….an unfashionable, Alan Partridge-style male

Cheesy, grievous, rank…awful

Chirpsing…flirting or chatting up

Gazing…relaxing

Jawache, grab, snork…to kiss

Oof…a stunningly attractive female

Pants…disappointing or unlucky

Pukka, rated…excellent

Shtenkie…disgusting

Mullered, spannered, twatted…the worse for wear after drinking

Throw a bennie…become enraged or lose control

Tough, uggers…extremely unattractive

Trust, squids, bollers…money

Vamping, flexing…showing off

This article first appeared in the GUARDIAN newspaper in September 2000

 

 

I ventured to Love Island…as you do

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Many TV shows have promoted and propagated catchphrases and slang: ‘Luvly jubbly’ from Only Fools and Horses, ‘Cowabunga’ from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example,  but probably the first reality TV series to lodge words and phrases in the British consciousness was T.O.W.I.E – ‘The Only Way is Essex‘ – source of ‘wel jel’, ‘reem’ and more. Love Island, now in its second series, also features a similar demographic – young adult, not necessarily highly educated, extrovert, fit (in both senses) and narcissistic.

As a linguist studying slang, I’m used to having to listen to and interact with criminals, social deviants and other ‘unsavoury’ characters, but one of the most painful experiences of all for me is the obligation to watch reality television. This is not mere linguistic snobbery – though that is certainly a factor – but, if I am honest, because I would never even in my youth have been selected to take part in these beauty contests cum dating games on account of my physical shortcomings. Nevertheless, I have been dutifully tuning in to Love Island recently and trying to come to terms with examples of what linguists call a ‘restricted code’, that is a limited vocabulary and limited grammatical repertoire of made up of simple structures and colloquialisms. This can reflect the limitations of speakers’ communication skills and literacy-levels, but does of course result from the very restricted environment in which participants are placed and the simple, repetitive actions and interactions they have to perform.

You might say, uncharitably perhaps, that the contestants on Love Island are also infantilised by being coerced into playing out simple and repetitive relationship games for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The words and phrases which result, and even the intonation and tone of voice that emerges is a weird mix in which the young ‘stars’ alternate attempts at complex formulations when describing psychological pressures with frivolous slang when flirting or teasing, all delivered in the rushed and breathless accents of toddlers.

Psychologists talk about the act of ‘mirroring’ whereby people imitate subconsciously the speech, gestures, mannerisms of others, either to ‘honour ‘ them (if they are seen as high-status or admirable) or to show solidarity and empathy. There is a neuron in the brain that triggers this mimicry in sharing emotion, reinforcing relationships and bonding. Mirroring is contagious like yawning and, again, inside a closed and comparatively claustrophobic environment, its effects are intensified.

The slang used on Love Island may be part of what linguists call a ‘stigmatised’ variety of language – i.e comprising linguistic features that are disapproved of and usually considered substandard in normal society,  but slang is at the same time what linguists call a ‘prestige variety’ within the in-groups or subcultures where it originates and where it is exchanged, in other words it confers status on the user and excludes the outsiders who aren’t cool enough to understand it and deploy it convincingly. So for the island community slang helps to reinforce identity and for their fans provides an opportunity to identify with them and emulate them.

The Radio Times has supplied a helpful glossary of the words and phrases in question:

https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-06-06/love-island-glossary-slang-words-meaning/

Despite all my misgivings I agreed to speak to journalist Ralph Blackburn about the programme. Ralph had been intrigued by the way the contestants increasingly adopted one another’s language mannerisms just as their vocabularies seemed to reduce as the series progressed. His article appeared today in the Daily Mail:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7112087/Why-Love-Islanders-forced-copy-language.html

Love Island villa

The Sunday Times has also investigated language use on the show, and reactions from some schools to it:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/like-it-or-not-they-cant-stop-saying-it-on-love-island-zc8dtpkfs

For a different perspective, on Love Island as a media and pop culture phenomenon, here is Charlotte Rogers‘ article in Marketing Week:

Charlotte Rogers: Love Island may be a ratings hit, but it’s a brand risk

In the summer of 2021 Dr Hannah Charnock decoded the language of sex employed in the programme (still popular, but condemned by some as a sleaze-fest) for The Conversation:

https://theconversation.com/love-island-and-the-coded-language-of-sex-165097?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%202018119835&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%202018119835+CID_55ea1e540ef9c6b55bf0c55a6131160e&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=discourse%20about%20physical%20intimacy

And Banseka Kayembe, writing for Bustle, addressed the issue of language appropriation by white islanders:

https://www.bustle.com/entertainment/moving-mad-love-islands-problem-with-language-appropriation

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 a decade now, and increasingly over 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

And in March 2020 London school students dramatised the issue on stage.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/mar/06/this-is-our-reality-as-teenagers-students-take-gang-culture-to-the-stage

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

From October 2019, news of a case that I was not involved with…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7538633/Drug-gang-leader-jailed-police-use-rap-translator-prove-threatened-shoot-rivals.html

An update: in August 2020 the Sun newspaper reported on the new use of TikTok to post gang videos. Despite the sensationalist format the substance of the article is accurate…

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/12535332/tiktok-gang-violence-drill-music-oj-profile-scorecards/

**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…

‘POOR TOM’S A-COLD’

 English below freezing

Image result for nipply

Writer Melissa Harrison was intrigued when I posted on Twitter last night that ‘It’s pretty nipply out there.’ I was referring in facetious fashion to this January’s latest cold front – ‘cold snap’ has described a cold spell or sudden sharp frost since the 1740s – but the more literal nipply has been substituted by wags for the colloquial nippy (used in this sense since the 19th century) only since the 1990s.

We are bombarded at this time of the year by journalese hyperbole –  the threat of thundersnow, the imminent arrival of The Beast from the East, the Siberian blast or even Snowmageddon. In january 2021 the UK press passed on warnings from the Met Office of  a SSW – a Sudden Stratospheric Warming event, caused by a reversal in the direction of polar winds. The need for Brits to try and keep abreast of their capricious and wayward climate changes, coupled with our love of flippancy and understatement has thrown up a number of quaint and folksy expressions treating the notion of ‘bloody freezing’, some of which risk leaving foreigners at a loss.

Image result for potatoes in the mould

‘It’s a bit taters out there, I can tell you.’ Can still be heard, as I related in my Dictionary of Slang, in the ‘respectable jocular speech’ of older people, though it’s a shortening of the archaic Cockney rhyming slang ‘taters in the mold’ as rhyme for cold, originally describing not potatoes in a cooking tray, as I long thought, but potatoes lying in bed of loose earth (the ‘mold’) ready for harvesting. From a similar age-group and given the notoriously bad insulation of British buildings, you might still hear ‘There’s a terrible George Raft in here!’, the rhyme for draught borrowing the name of the Hollywood actor of the 1940s, famous for his stylish tough-guy roles on and off screen.

Image result for george Raft

More modern colloquialisms for ‘cold’ are arctic and Baltic, the latter sounding like a slightly rude double entendre. Common in Scotland, it might just reference the cold weather systems that sweep towards the UK from that region, but since the 1990s has been heard on US campuses too, and in Northern Irish slang where it means both freezing and fashionably ‘cool’ or ‘chilled.’ More obscure is brick as adjective for chilly, cold, freezing, heard in American English, where the better known cold as a witch’s tit and colder than a well-digger’s ass originated.

Image result for three brass monkeys

On being met by a blast of freezing air the expression, or exclamation, brass monkeys is entirely appropriate. Baffled hearers will likely be told that this is a shortening of the vulgar expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ and, if their informer is better informed, that the brass monkeys in question were the racks of cannonballs stored on the decks of warships. This is, though, almost certainly a false, folk etymology. A more likely source is that novelty brass monkeys were sold in sets of three as desk or mantelpiece decorations from Victorian times. Each monkey’s hands were clasped to hide a part of the body and in some cases one was covering his – or her – genital area.*

Another very British way of understating the intense, unbearable cold is ‘it’s rather parky isn’t it.’ The word has been used, particularly in middle-class speech since before the First World War, but its origin remains obscure. It might be a dialect pronunciation of ‘perky’ in the sense of sharp and fresh, or from the word ‘park’ as used by gamekeepers to mean ‘(the cold) outdoors’. Nowadays in lighthearted family conversation it’s sometimes elaborated to parquet-flooring or Parkinson – the name of a well-known elderly TV presenter. The more emphatic perishing used to be rendered by Peregrine Worsthorne, the name of a journalist cruelly nicknamed ‘Perishing Worthless’ by Private Eye magazine. @the TuesdayMan on Twitter tells us that it’s Perez de Cuellar in his household.

Image result for freezing weather

Out in the frozen fields, away from the southern conurbations, another old dialect term still flourishes. Nesh can mean cold, or weak and susceptible to cold (hence also cowardly or contemptible) and still crops up in northern conversations. In Old English it was hnesce, weak or infirm and may derive ultimately from a Proto-IndoEuropean word for scrape or scratch. In the Potteries district  in Staffordshire they still use starvin’ to mean feeling cold, and my friend and colleague Jonathon Green reminds me that the English Dialect Dictionary also lists as synonyms for chilly airish, chillery, chilpy, coldrife, cuthrie, dead, lash, oorie, rear, snelly and urly. From Grimsby John Mooney reports a local usage is ‘it’s a bit hunch, usually with a dropped aitch, meaning really cold’ while @fairfaaye on Twitter contributes an Ulster Scots expression: founthered (also foundered): meaning ‘chilled to the bone’; as in ‘thon day would founther ye’, I’m founthered wi tha caul’ or ‘he got a wile founther’. From Old Scots fundy, to suffer a chill, originally, Old French enfondre, to be chilled.

Prompted by the breakdown of my central heating system I reposted all this on 22 January 2020 and The English Voice Bank on Twitter has responded with some new cold weather terms from the British Library’s Evolving English WordBank. One, recorded in Hull, is nithered, another is thanda,  ‘a wonderful example of Punjabi-English code-switching supplied by a contributor from the West Midlands’. From Derby comes an example of rhyming slang:

https://blogs.bl.uk/sound-and-vision/2019/01/recording-of-the-week-its-a-bit-derby.html

In September 2020, as an Indian summer receded, @Tweetolectology posted this reminder:

Image

* In April 2021 Angela White contacted me with more details on the ‘brass monkey’ derivation. I gratefully reproduce her observations here…

In your discussion about ‘brass monkeys’, you dismiss the idea of it relating to naval usage, the brass monkey was a cannon and the ‘tail’ was a lever used to aim the cannon. The same cannons were also referred to as ‘dogs’ and ‘drakes’. This is attested in: “short brass munkeys, alias dogs” from an inventory, ‘The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel (1650)’ and “Twenty eight brass monkeys alias dogs” from Flagellum by J Heath (1663). in the 19th century, the phrase ‘cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey’ emerged: “Whew, ain’t it blowing ‘Jehosaphat Bumstead & cold’, it would freeze the tail off of a brass monkey.” from ‘Before the Mast in the Clippers, the diary of Charles Augustus Abbey (1857).
At the same time, a range of other ‘brass monkey’ phrases emerged such as ‘as cheeky as a brass monkey’, ‘talk the leg off a brass monkey’ and ‘hot enough to singe the hair off a brass monkey’ etc. These probably originated from the popularity of brass monkey souvenirs from the Far East which depicted the three wise monkeys. [My Great-grandfather served in the British Army in the Far East in the late 19th century, so he may have brought back such a souvenir.]
In 20th century USA, the phrase changed to the current expression: ” Ernest said ‘It would freeze the balls off a brass monkey – that’s how cold it gets.’ from the notebooks of Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). From a letter by Zelda Fitzgerald dated 1921, she writes: “This damned place is 18 below zero and I go around thanking God that, anatomically and proverbially speaking, I am safe from the awful fate of the monkey.” which was referred to in ‘The Far Side of Paradise’, a biography of F Scott Fitzgerald by Arthur Mizener (1951). This suggests that the phrase was in common usage by this time

If you’re familiar with any other slang, dialect or humorous, colourful terms for this season’s weather, please let me know. You will be gratefully credited.