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.

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

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

 

NEURODIVERSITY – and NEUROLEADERSHIP

The jargon and new terminology I collected for my Bizwords column used to highlight exciting trends in marketing and management, often featuring versions of the ‘hero-boss’ or ‘digital leader’. Many more recent buzzwords relate to complex issues affecting social, cultural as well as commercial stakeholders. Here are examples of both tendencies in one short article…

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In the last few years society has, thankfully, come to focus increasingly on the needs of those individuals categorised as neurodiverse. This umbrella term, dating from the 1990s, refers to differences in neurocognitive functioning among humans and encompasses conditions such as dyscalculia, dyspraxia and dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), bipolarity and types of autism, including Asperger’s syndrome, extending to take in epileptics, anxiety sufferers and savants. ‘Neurodiversity’ describes both the spectrum of conditions and a philosophical stance (the neurodiversity paradigm) which claims that the ‘normal’ neurocognitive functioning of the neurotypical (NT) is a social, not a scientific construct and that the issues around the so-called neurodivergent, especially the inequalities they may be subject to, should be approached in the same way as gender, ethnicity or cultural issues. The noun has thus become the label for activist movements working for social justice for ND minorities.

The business world, having first adopted inclusion and anti-discrimination strategies to cater for the neurodiverse, has come more recently to appreciate the special benefits of employing individuals whose unusual attributes can help to enhance and transform an organisation. As Charlotte Rogers wrote in Marketing Week in May 2017, ‘From leading new innovations and helping marketers achieve true diversity of thought, to enriching the wider company culture, having a neurodiverse workforce makes strong business sense.’ Harvard Business Review in the same month referred to neurodiversity as ‘a competitive advantage.’

Those working with ND colleagues often make simplistic assumptions, both negative (‘if you are dyslexic you won’t be able to handle complex language’) and positive (‘if you have autism you will probably be highly numerate’) which need to be questioned. ND employees may – or may not – have developed insights, tactics, skills and forms of resilience that are novel, exciting and useful: those on the autistic spectrum can for example be capable of focused attention to detail beyond a ‘normal’ capacity, be hyperarticulate or possess enhanced memory or spatial awareness. Equally they may exhibit behaviour that seems eccentric, they can sometimes struggle to empathise and need ‘buddy’ programmes and mentoring to enable them to integrate socially within a conventional organisational culture.

A related n-word, neuroleadership, marking a ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ tendency in transformative management, began trending nearly a decade ago. At the time it was defined somewhat crudely as ‘managing the mental wellbeing of fellow-workers.’ In a business environment where toxic organisations are said to foster emotional contagion, therapists and counsellors began selling mental fitness programmes, brain-based coaching and highlighting the senior manager’s responsibility to promote mind-based performance. Self-styled futurists began in the early noughties to posit a post-informational neurosociety, and drawing on developments in neuroscience and psychology, the first world NeuroLeadership conference, organised by US thought leaders David Rock (who coined the term) and Al Ringleb, was held in 2007. Participants in this still-fashionable sector (they have claimed ‘the birth of a new business discipline’) refer to the neural challenges facing decision-makers, priorities such as moral cognition, cultural intelligence, and emotional regulation, and are fond of psychobabble like ‘foiling amygdala hijack’ (the amygdala being the brain’s anxiety switch) and ‘reclaiming the fire after the burnout’. Critics also point to the danger that these approaches cross the boundaries between the professional and the private spheres and lend themselves to quasi-scientific quackery.

In debates on neurodiversity and in the marketing of neuroleadership, language plays a crucial role. Not only in defining and encoding new ideas and new practices but in embedding or uncovering, through discourse, the hidden prejudices and the complex power relationships that exist in organisations and in the wider society. ND activists want to ensure that variations in the human genome and resulting differences in the nervous systems of individuals are no longer spoken of as ‘pathological’, no longer defined simply (as they still are) as ‘disorders’. Colloquial expressions like ‘differently wired’ can come to have special resonance, and ‘politically correct’ formulations such as ‘differently abled’ become essential to a more nuanced awareness of the subject.

Autistic UK has more information on neurodiversity, including notes on terminology and definitions:

https://autisticuk.org/neurodiversity/

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