Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.
With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.
While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’
In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’
‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.
On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:
Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.
I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.
In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.
*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’
I first encountered codeswitching when as a very young boy I watched the movies of Satyajit Ray, the Indian auteur whose dialogues featured Indian families interspersing their conversations in Bengali with words and phrases in English. In those days the technical term for this, the concept too, was rarely if ever treated by linguists, let alone understood by the wider, overwhelmingly monoglot UK and US publics.
Codeswitching, which is actually commonly practised, usually in less formal settings, in many different societies and multilingual communities, did subsequently become the object of enquiry by language experts, and theories were generated to account for the phenomenon and to analyse its various manifestations (you can find a summary of these on Wikipedia).
More recently in the United States a particular manifestation, that of African American citizens moderating their language to cope with different speech environments, has helped ‘codeswitching’ to begin the crossover from technical terminology into everyday conversation. More recently still, in the last two weeks, the word has featured in a political and cultural cause celebre…
‘She didn’t grow up in the Bronx. She moved out when she was 5. Saying she grew up around the language is misleading; it’s the very reason why it was so cringe-inducing to hear her say it. There was no flava, no swag, no essence. She didn’t pull it off.’
‘From Westchester and Boston U who has never before been seen on any video (and she got lots of those!) speaking in this weird, constrained accent that was a person’s idea of what they should sound like. Leftists don’t get a pass on their racism.’
‘It’s “cultural appropriation.” It satisfies EVERY SINGLE definitional predicate thereof: She is not Black, not poor, and left the Bronx at age 5. She was pandering for political purposes. Not a debatable point.’
The accusations relate to American political Wunderkind and bugbear of the Right, Latina Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was accused of pandering to a new constituency and assuming a fake identity in a speech to a predominantly black audience – accusations she rushed to refute, telling her critics to ‘step off’ – African American vernacular for ‘get lost’:
Some members of the US public did voice their support
‘I think it’s just that most Republican house/Senate members have never talked to anyone except rich white men so they never have to switch’
‘Switching’ or ‘shifting’ is related to what linguists call ‘accommodation’ – altering your speech to match or to empathise with your interlocutors*. It can be simply intended to make communication faster, clearer, or it may be adopted consciously or unconsciously to establish a bond or to affirm solidarity. I certainly find myself doing it – but maybe I’m not typical as I’m a linguist. I do it and have heard it done not only with BAME interlocutors but when more neutral British accents are brought closer to those of Scousers, Geordies, Scots and, still in English, with Jamaicans, Americans and Australians. I think for obvious reasons we are more likely to engage the ’empathy’ mechanism when the conversation is in a more heightened, charged, socially sensitive setting – this of course would apply if we are more conscious of diversity, identity, inequity issues. I also have to talk a lot with younger people who are speaking street slang and MLE in their natural environment and when I do my intonation certainly shifts and I use more informal vocabulary and even slang – I modify the style of my speech in order to accommodate. They probably upscale their style for me too.
Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should generally be considered a positive rather than negative habit. In the stratified class-conscious British context it would only be questionable if it was condescending, as with a posh person adopting a ‘working class’ accent when talking to tradespeople – which I have to admit I do all the time and which Sunday Times columnist India Knight expounded on back in 2001 (thanks to Stewart McNicol for the reference):
Style-shifting is a positive part of being multilingual or rather ‘heteroglossic‘ – the philosopher and literary theorist Bakhtin’s term for being able to speak in multiple voices for creative effect and in recognition of multiple contexts. The problem is that most monolingual Brits and Americans can’t do it and don’t do it. Of course the adoption of other voices can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people have accused style-shifters of ‘appropriation’ but it depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it – Australian rapper Iggy Azalea stood accused of faking a ‘blaccent’ last year – it’s bad. If it’s in order to form a bond it can be laudable. The TV comedy Phone Shop brilliantly satirised white men speaking multiethnic street slang, as did Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G more than a decade earlier. DJ and hiphop enthusiast Tim Westwood has been getting away with it for years.
Following the latest brouhaha I talked to London journalist and specialist in BAME-related issues Faima Bakar about code-switching and her report for Metro is here:
In search of a personal take on the issues dealt with here, I spoke to a young academic researching at my own institution. Farhaz J told me…
‘I do find the idea of code-switching fascinating… I’ve been doing it all my life. From pronouncing English words with an Indian twang when conversing with my grandparents, to incorporating slang terms when messaging one of my primary school classmates who is currently in jail for gang crime. I’d imagine my most natural speaking style is that which I use when talking to my immediate family, with whom I’ve grown up and am most comfortable. And of course the style of language I would use in a job interview or an email to my lecturers at King’s College London might not be my most natural. It’s certainly interesting to consider motivations for code-switching.
If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do? Perhaps in my case, my motivation for code-switching could either be to make myself more understandable, e.g. when adjusting my accent and grading my language when speaking to elders in my extended family, or to enhance my image – my ‘face’ – in the case of speaking to somebody who was involved in gang culture. I suppose it can be gratifying to appear trendy in how you speak – in my experience, the coolest kids in school used the latest slang, often acquired from peers or artists in UK rap and street culture. As language itself in that genre of music is regarded as much more essential than in others where there is much more emphasis on melody or vocal ability, there is probably a greater need for rappers to impress listeners with creative lexis in their lyrics.’
On a much lighter note, and lest we forget, Henry Hitchings reminds me to reference former England managers Steve McClaren‘s spectacular act of linguistic accommodation back in 2008…
In August 2020 The BBC released this podcast with personal accounts of codeswitching in the workplace, and the role of MLE…
*After this post and John McWhorter’s article appeared there were useful conversations on Twitter about which technical terms in linguistics most accurately described what AOC had been doing. US based sociolinguist Kelly E Wright commented, ‘I would consider what AOC is doing as style shifting, in a Sociolinguistic sense. To me, code-switching is intrasentential.’ She added, ‘From my theoretical background, I would characterize accommodation as happening on fine grained, lower levels. Slight vowel fronting or raising. Point being, not at the level of metacognitive awareness…We notice a recognizable, and also “foreign” (to us or to the speaker in our percept) speech pattern. That means there is much more than textbook accommodation going on.’ I noted that I had favoured ‘styleshifting’ in my commentaries but that ‘codeswitching’ had now become part of the ‘public conversation’/’sociocultural narrative’ and that ‘accommodation’, whether conscious or not, might be an appropriate term in cases of class-influenced accent moderation in a UK setting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Every generation pretends gang crime is a new problem."
Rapper and author Akala says the social indicators of violence have "remained identical for almost 200 years". pic.twitter.com/aJO1raMFnn
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.
"Yeah I've got a knife right now."
These 15 and 19 year old gang members say carrying a knife is a "risk you've just got to take" because the penalty is "get killed or go to prison." #dispatchespic.twitter.com/sIeEzVyVqC
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…
**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…
It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…
Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:
Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525
To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.
At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them. The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.
I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.
Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:
In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):
I have been collecting new and controversial languagegenerated by the rise of conservative populism in the US and the UK, by pro- and anti-Trump sentiment in the US and by the divisions resulting from the UK’s Brexit vote. This is a work in progress: the preliminary list of terms as it stands is below. Soon I plan to offer detailed definitions and comments (for example, the second word in the list is my own invention, intended to describe a statement, act or policy showing effrontery, and itself a deliberate affront to a section of the population) and a ‘lexical’ categorisation (into ‘jargon’, ‘slang, ‘catchphrase’, cliché, for instance).
***Please do contact me with new examples, with comments and with criticism, which will be gratefully acknowledged and credited.***
Brexit means Brexit
Britain deserves better
Canada plus plus plus
Dead cat strategy
Drain the swamp
Enemies of the people
Fall off a cliff
False flag operation
Flooding the zone
Get it done
Henry VIII powers
Hose it down
Kicking the can down the road
Leave means leave
Magic money tree
Put/stick that on the side of a bus
Race to the bottom
SJW social justice warrior
Taking back control
Throw under the bus
#tfg, ‘the former guy’
Will of the people
I’m grateful especially to the many contacts on Twitterwho have already contributed to this modest project, particularly Duncan Reynolds @duncanr2, and will credit them all by name/handle when a final version is published.
I’m also very grateful to Rob Booth and the Guardian who, in October 2019, wrote about the glossary and its topicality in increasingly conflicted times:
**’Skunked terms’ are words or expressions undergoing a controversial change in meaning. Examples are ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ which have transitioned from referring to leftist, progressive or centrist positions to denote neo-conservative or alt-right affiliations. Nearly two years on from my original post the useful designation ‘anglosphere’, describing English-speaking nations with shared cultural features, has been co-opted by far-right nativists in the UK to promote a supremacist ideology.
As a further footnote, this from Twitter in November 2020 (thanks to Alan Pulverness), a reminder that weaponised words may also be frivolous – even puerile:
And finally, from 2016, a prescient tweet by Gary Kasparov:
This week, very late in the day, the mainstream UK media and the wider national conversation finally caught up with a social and political slur that had been trending for more than a year already. The insult in question was ‘gammon’, one of only a couple of pejorative labels (the other, slightly more affectionate, being ‘centrist dad’) directed from the left at the right as opposed to the many (‘libtard’, ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’, etc.) routinely hurled in the other direction.
The word itself is British and denotes an orange-coloured side or slice of cooked ham or bacon often proposed as emblematic of the garish-looking, odd-tasting and nutritionally suspect dishes served (warm, with a pineapple garnish) across British tables in the 1970s (when, ironically, ‘gammon rasher’ was rhyming slang for ‘smasher’ in the sense of something superlative). Gammon was adopted from French gambon, from gambe meaning leg, in the 15th century, while backgammon is unrelated and probably comes from an old form of the verb to game.
Following the Times’ , the Expressand the New Statesman’s belated discovery of the word Twitter was a-buzz on May 14, first with protests, many seemingly by gammons themselves, at what were alleged to be its racist and classist implications and then with more coherent attempts to unpack its real denotations and connotations.
Someone with the handle ‘Build a wall, line all the nazis up along it’ explained…
‘Gammon isn’t about class, it describes white ppl who spend a lot of their time being pink because they’re so angry being white doesn’t make them special’
Exasperated by ongoing witless misunderstandings, I added my own two-penn’orth…
‘Nothing to do with class, it denotes florid, loud, usually lardy middle-aged ranting bigots. #simples’
By midday someone else had discovered a reference in Victorian literature that seemed to anticipate the modern usage…
‘My god, he’s right: @Protooptimism has discovered that Dickens used “gammon tendency” as a political insult in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9):
It’s not quite clear whether Dickens’ use of the word relates to the slang sense then prevalent in the underworld, of ‘gammon’, verb and noun, to mean (‘to use) the secret, deceitful language of thieves and tricksters’, hence applicable perhaps to jingoism and bluster on the part of a ‘fervid’ middle-aged blowhard. An intriguing correlation with Irish was noted by another commentator…
No linguists paid much attention at the time to the mutation of gammon from a collective term of abuse for a constituency or persuasion to a label applied to the individual members thereof. The BBC, though, yesterday carried a good, level-headed history of the expression’s first post- Brexit referendum appearances and its rise to prominence…
‘I’m a 55 year old white thinning cropped haired old punker. #Gammon isn’t racist, it perfectly describes the bigoted tossers of my own age group who turn pink when they get angry about their privilege being challenged. G’wan bust yer blood vessels you rancid foaming dinosaurs.’
…Five days on I discovered this, from the originator of the expression himself…
The latest in a long series of moral panics (the term used by sociologists since the 1970s) exploited by the UK press and now subject of rancorous political debate, the issue of knife-crime and killings by street gangs, mainly in London, is genuinely concerning and is only now receiving the attention and analysis it demands. A side-effect of media interest is that the language used by the gang members and by the music genres that celebrate them is being recorded – haphazardly and not always accurately – for the first time. The musical genre in question is UK Drill, a successor to the ultra-hard-edged Trap Rap (from The Trap, slang nickname for the local area where drugs are dealt) that appeared first in Chicago in the 2000s. Drill (the word can signify shooting but has many other slang senses) has been adopted and adapted by hyperlocal urban communities in the poorer parts of London and, despite their claims, doesn’t just evoke the harsh realities of life on inner-city estates, but often glamorises it and seems to promote an ethos of territoriality, boastful masculinity and murderous retaliatory violence.
So far only very few reporters have managed to penetrate the groups whose members occupy and fiercely defend their microzones, fighting for control, too, of economies based on drug trading. The rappers emerging from the same postcode- or estate-defined enclaves compete and feud electronically, dissing and threatening their rivals in their lyrics – and in a few cases have actually been implicated in killings or woundings on the street.
In May 2018 the Metropolitan Police intensified attempts to ban videos associated with the music genre and the gangs caught up in street violence:
Since beginning this project I have managed to engage with some members of this subculture and find out more about their values and the way they encode them. In the meantime I have begun to assemble a lexicon of the most significant key terms they use, in a slang which mixes US hiphop argot and Caribbean expressions transposed to or reinvented in London (harking back to the Yardie gang culture of the 1980s). So far just a glossary, my list is far from complete, so please help me add more items if you can, or correct my mistakes. Here is this work in progress as it stands, now updated for July 2020, followed by some relevant links…
125 – scooter
Active – dependable associate
– involved in gang activities
Ahk, Akhi – brother, friend (from Arabic)
Amm – cannabis (abbreviation of Amnesia, a potent strain)
Askari – police (from Arabic and other African languages)
Back out – draw (a weapon)
Bagged – caught by the police
Bagging – stabbing in the lower body
Bally, Bali – balaclava
Bando – abandoned property
Bands – coloured elastic bands tying batches of cash
Banger – hit, successful song
Bap – the sound of a shot or gunfire
– to fire (a gun)
Bars – lyrics
Beef – dispute, feud
Bells – bullets
Binned – shot
Birded off, birded up – imprisoned
Bitz – one’s neighbourhood
– drugs weighing more than 7 grams
Blam – shoot
Blow – leave, escape
– ‘take off’, achieve career success
Blunt – cannabis ‘spliff’
Bones – dead
Booj, buj – heroin
Bookie, buki – suspicious
Bora, borer – knife
Box – prison
Boxed, boxed in, boxed up – imprisoned
Bozz – leader
Breeze off – leave town, disappear
Bruck, bruk – broken (down), broke
Bruckshot – sawn-off shotgun
Buj – obnoxious person
Bun – light up (a cannabis cigarette)
– shoot, eliminate
Burner – gun
Burst – shoot
Cabby– cigarette containing cannabis and cocaine or cannabis and crack mix
Cake – crack or cocaine
Cally – cannabis
Can – prison
Car, cah – because
Cat – drug user and/or drug purchaser
CBO – criminal behaviour order
Cheffed (up) – stabbed, killed
Chete – machete
Ching – knife
– to stab
Chinging – chilling and hanging out
Civilian – non-gang-member, non-combatant
Clap – attack, shoot
– steal drugs
Codes – ‘postcode areas’, zones where gangs dominate
Corn – ammunition
Crash – raid, invade
Crashing corn – shooting your gun
Crib – home
Cro – cannabis
Cunch – out-of-town locations where drugs can be sold
Cutter – knife
Cuttin – leaving, running away
– mixing or adulterating illicit drugs
Dark – heroin
Dash – throw
– run (away)
Dasheen – running away, fleeing
Diligent – admirable, brave, cool
– dependable associate
Ding dong – dispute, brawl
also dinger, dinga, ding – cheap car
Dipped – stabbed
Dipper – knife
Don – respected person
Dottie, Dotty, Dotz – shotgun
Doughnut – idiot
Drawn out – involved in gang culture, under pressure from street crime
– lured, rendered vulnerable
Drenched – stabbed
Driller – shooter, gang member
Drilling – attacking, aggressing, invading
Dumpy – shotgun
Dun – kill(ed), punish(ed)
Duppy – kill, dead
Elizabeth – money
Endz – one’s neighbourhood
4-door – saloon car
Feds – police
Field – danger-zone, combat area
Fishing – looking for victims
Flake – cocaine
Flashed – stopped, pulled over e.g by police
Flicky – switchblade knife
Food – drugs
Fry – shoot (at)
Gassed – excited
g-check – aggressively check someone’s gang credentials
Gem – weak person
Get the drop – acquire necessary information
Glide – drive into enemy territory
GM – (fellow) gang member
Go cunch/country – leave the city to sell drugs in rural/seaside locations
Got – attacked, robbed
Grubby – authentic, tough (neighbourhood)
Guv – prison officer
Gwop – money
Habsi, hapsi – black person
Hand ting – pistol
Hitter – gunman
Hottie – SIM card
Iron – gun
Jakes – police
Joint – gun
Jump out – undercover police on patrol
– emerge from a vehicle
Juiced – confident, energised
Khala – black person
Khalas!– ‘that’s enough’, stop!
Ketchup – blood
Kick down doors, kick in doors, kick door – raid a domestic location
Kweff, Queff – kill with gun or knife, harm, attack
Kweng – cut, stabbed
Laces – ammunition
Lacking – caught unawares, without backup
Landing – prison, cell
Layers – protective clothing
Leggin (it) – escaping, running away
Leng – gun
Let rip – fire a bullet or discharge a firearm
Light – cocaine, crack
Line – a drug-dealing operation or network
Link – contact, source for drugs
– make contact with, meet, collect
Lizzies – money
– mobile phones
Loud – cannabis
Lurk – stalk a victim, prowl around
Machine – gun
Mac(k) – automatic firearm, Mac -9 or Mac-10 small machine gun
Mains – close companions
– streets, urban zone
Mash – gun
Matic – gun
Matrixed – placed on the London Met police gang database
Mazza, Mazzaleen – madness, crazy situation
Ments – mental, crazy
Milly – a 9mm pistol
Moist – disgusting, pathetic
– cowardly, weak, afraid
Mop – large gun
Move – criminal operation, raid or attack
Nank – knife, stab
Nap nap – kidnap
Need – cannabis
Niff – cocaine
No face – masked, with identity concealed
OJ – ‘on job’, productive and successful in street activities
Old Bill – the police
On papers – on parole or probation
On road – outdoors, active in the streets/neighbourhood(s), eg engaged in selling drugs
On tag – fitted with an electronic surveillance device
On volts – intent on or engaged in violence
Ooters – shooters
Opps – enemies
Opp-block – enemy territory
OT – ‘out trapping’, ‘out there’ or ‘out of town’, away on business, dealing in urban or country locations
Ox – razor, blade
Pagan, paigon – untrustworthy person, enemy
Paper, papes – money, cash
Passa – dispute, dramatic event
Patch – territory
Pattern – arrange, sort out, set up
Patty – slow-witted, ‘clueless’ or deluded person
– (white) female
Pave – streets
Pay – profitable activity, reward
Pebs, pebbles – pellets or deals of heroin, crack or steroids
Ped – moped
Pen – prison
Pepper – spray with shotgun pellets or bullets, shoot
Plot – plan, set up
– hang around
Plug – a contact for drugs
Plugging – hiding drugs in rectum
Poke – stab
Pole – shotgun, gun
Popo – police
Posted up – hanging around, positioned to sell drugs
Pree – to check out, assess (a person)
Proper – excellent, admirable
Ps – money
Push, pusha – bicycle
Put in/on a spliff – killed
Rack – quantity of money, £1000
Rambo – large knife or machete
Rams, Ramsay – knife
Rep – promote or publicly declare for (one’s area, gang)
Ride out for (someone) – to defend, even if guilty
Riding dirty – going out armed and/or in possession of drugs
Rise – aim (a weapon)
Riz – cigarette papers
Road – street-smart, active in street culture
Rusty – antique or old firearm
Sam, sams – samurai sword or large knife
Score – kill or injure an enemy
Scoreboard, scorecard – list of enemies killed, injured or defeated
Scram – gun
Scrum – attractive female, sex
Shank – knife
Sh, shh – ‘don’t mention this’, censored item
Shaved – insulted, humiliated, punished
Sheets – cigarette papers
Shoes – guns
Shot – buyer of drugs
Shotting – dealing drugs
Shouts – greetings, acclaim
Skate, skeet – run away
Skeng – knife, gun, weapon
Skududu – rapid gunfire
Slammer – prison
Slatt – cry of affection, respect
Slew – ruin, defeat
Sliding – driving into enemy territory
Slime – friend, associate
Smoke – kill
– conflict, violence, hostility
Snitch – informer
Soak – stab
Spinner – revolver
Spinners – petite females
Spitting – rapping
Splash, splash up, splash down – stab
Squirt – spray acid (over someone)
Stacks – large quantities of money
Stain – rob
– robbery victim
Stepping on toes – trespassing on or attacking enemy territory
Throwing up signs – making gang-related gestures with fingers
Ting – girl
Trap – neighbourhood, ‘ghetto’, area where drugs are sold, temporary location for dealing drugs
Trapping – hanging out, selling drugs or waiting for buyers to contact
Trey, tre – pistol
Tum-tum – gun
Tweed – cannabis
24s – all day
Wap – gun
Warhead – cigarette containing a drug
Wass – stupid person
Weston – handgun
Wetter(s) – knife
Wetting – stabbing, killing
Whip – car
– break down (a drug) into smaller parts
Woosh – shoot
Worksy – busy, diligent
Yammed – robbed
Yard – home
Yat – girl
Yay – crack
Yé – personal style, skill
Y.I.C – ‘youngest in charge’, young gang member taking or given responsibility
Yute – young person or young people on the street
Zombie – zombie knife
Zoot – cannabis cigarette
I’m keen to add more authentic terms and for my list to be corrected or commented on by those in the know. I’m very grateful indeed to all those who have already contributed, in particular Josh Jolly, Creative Director for PressPlay Media, Farhaz Janmohamed, George Baker and Nelson Bayomy and to the many students and Drill and Grime aficionados who have donated language.
You can find a dictionary of multi-ethnic London slang and other examples of so called MLE (Multicultural London English) here on my site. I have extensive files of youth language, available to researchers, journalists, etc. on request, and here are some more street slang terms from the UK Rap and Grime milieu, many also used by Drill aficionados:
I talked last week to London journalist Faima Bakar about the varying reactions to ‘bad language’ as manifested by men and women. In her investigations she is still finding that many males routinely chastise females, telling them that swearing is unattractive and inappropriate.
Both genderfluidity and the questioning of gender norms have fundamentally changed perceptions of feminine behaviour and of masculine responses too. At the same time the effects of social media in empowering women and giving them an equal voice have been transformative. But we can see from the messages exchanged on social media that many men have not evolved, cling to macho attitudes whereby – probably because they feel embattled and insecure – they choose to, or pretend to believe in such dated concepts as ‘ladylike women don’t use bad language.’
Swearing as a male trait is definitely embedded in 20th – century and to some extent 21st -century attitudes and assumptions: According to Jay (2000), individuals having high scores on the trait of masculinity will also swear most frequently, and:
Swearing is the language of power and indulging in it is part of the public or private exercising, or performing of power and of the celebration of it. Women’s language, as formerly perceived, was the language of powerlessness or reticence:
In a patriarchal society men impose taboos, then men claim the power to break those taboos – such as by using profane or offensive language. It’s very interesting to me not just that women are now reclaiming power in society and are swearing but that they are consciously using swearing as a statement of that power. This is evidenced, for example, on Twitter where there are many feisty (I’m aware that the word can be male code for ‘uppity’), witty, outspoken women who boast in their profiles or in their tweets that they are ‘sweary’. These tweeters, who include comedians, actors and writers as well as numerous unknown impresarios of obloquy, tease, mock and criticise offensive or unreconstructed males and use very rude words in doing so.
Here’s Faima’s article, with her own original insights and conclusions, in today’s Metro newspaper:
On a personal note, although I’m a linguist and obliged to treat ‘taboo’ language with absolute objectivity, and although I challenge the right of others to invoke moral or social disapproval, I still, hypocritically perhaps, criticise my own partner (who is not a native speaker of English) and my teenage son for being pottymouths, pointing out that delighting indiscriminately in expletives (which they both do) nearly always implies a lack of respect for hearers. Linguists assert that language can’t be viewed in isolation, but depends always on context, on the speaker or writer’s intent and on audience. Judgements can be made but based on what they call ‘appropriacy’ – the suitability of an utterance to its time, place and to those on the receiving end. If foul language is used, it should be indulged in only in the right setting – between friends who willingly join in, as part of a private conversation, a performance, even a Twitter tirade.
An update: ten days after Faima’s article was published Debbie Cameron responded on her blog:
In November 2002 the Sun newspaper reported that footballer’s wife ‘Posh Spice’ Victoria Beckham had launched a legal bid to stop second division football club Peterborough United from registering its nickname Posh as a trademark. The former Spice Girl claimed the word had become synonymous with her. ‘Sun readers, the paper affirmed, ‘back the club, which has used the name for eighty years.’ This little word epitomises both the English obsession with status distinctions and the jokey tone in which such a contentious subject is often addressed.
Fictional characters in the novel Diary of a Nobody, published in 1892 and the musical Lady Madcap, playing in London in 1904, sported the name Posh, and in a 1918 Punch cartoon a young swell is seen explaining that it is ‘slang for swish’. The first use of the word in the Times newspaper was in a crime report from May 1923, headlined ‘The Taxicab Murder’. ‘A walking stick was left at the scene of the crime, which the murderer left behind after shooting the driver, which belonged to his friend Eddie Vivian. He said…that he went out with Eddie’s stick because he wanted to be ‘posh’.’ In 1935 in the same paper the use of the word, which still appeared between quotation marks, was excused as ‘inevitably the idiom of the younger generation creeps in’.
The popular derivation, from the initial letters of ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ allegedly affixed to the cabin doors of first-class passengers on P&O Orient Line steamships, is certainly false, as demonstrated by, among others, word-buff Michael Quinion in his 2005 book which took the phrase as its title. Posh seems to have been used in low-life slang for some time before it was first recorded in a dictionary of 1889 with the principal meaning ‘money’ and the subsidiary sense of ‘dandy’. It may be the same word, in the form ‘push’, meaning ‘swanky, showy’, that featured in Edwardian upper-class student slang (‘quite the most push thing at Cambridge’ was P.G Wodehouse’s description of a fancy waistcoat, from 1903). The ultimate origin, then, is obscure: in the Romany language which was a rich source of pre-20th century argot, posh could mean ‘half’, often referring to half a shilling/crown/sovereign, etc. so may have come to denote money in general, then the trappings of wealth.
In 1966 Michael Aspel was carpeted by the BBC for selling records of elocution lessons featuring his voice and that of Jean Metcalfe (whose obituary in 2000 noted her ‘deep, cultivated voice’, the ads for which implied, the corporation said, that broadcasting required a posh voice. Like class-consciousness itself, and like the assertively upper-class accents it often described, the word posh seemed to fall out of fashion after the end of the 1960s, only to reassert itself at the new millennium. At the end of the ‘noughties’, it took on a renewed importance with David Cameron’s accession to the leadership of the Tory party and fellow Old Etonian Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s election as London mayor. As a literal synonym of privileged/wealthy/upmarket it is usefully inoffensive. Very frequently, however, it is used ironically, as in references to ‘posh nosh’ (typically very expensive sausages), and what online gossip site Popbitch dubs the ‘too-posh-to-push brigade’ – pampered mothers who opt for caesareans at private hospitals rather than natural births.
Reviewing Joanna Lumley mocking her own accent in a 2005 TV commercial, the Independent on Sunday commented, ‘In the 1960s, After Eights, Harvey’s Sherry and Cockburn’s Port were sold to Mrs Bucket’s everywhere on class – the idea that posh people bought them…if you want to do posh now it has to be spoofy and retro.’
In pop culture contexts posh has proved to be handy as an antonym of chav, especially in the numerous test-yourself quizzes in tabloids and online claiming to assess the underclass/toff-factor. From around 2000, ‘posho’ in UK campus slang has denoted a fellow-student perceived as from a wealthy or privileged background, while the litigious Victoria Beckham should note that in the same circles ‘Posh ‘n Becks’ is rhyming slang for sex.
Where accents are concerned the tide has seemed to flow in only one direction: in 2013 another broadcaster, the Radio 4 announcer Charlotte Green, accepted voluntary redundancy, declaring ‘received pronunciation, or accent-less accent [sic], is on the wane. The BBC’s days of employing people who sound like me are more or less over.’ She had once been voted the most attractive female voice on radio, that voice described as ‘a marvel, something to make one feel safe and secure, like being tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle.’ These days Cameron and Johnson play down their patrician tones to some extent, but fellow OE Jacob Rees Mogg incorporates a mannered, punctilious accent into his repertoire of self-presentation, adding to what the Sun terms ‘his ultra-posh exterior’ (the p-word is routinely applied to him by all sections of the media) and signalling to some the resurgence of a fogeyism that is either picturesque or (‘Please-Flog’ was one of the least offensive nicknames suggested in a Twitter poll) unsettlingly sinister.
As a linguist and lexicographer who once worked as a designer, I have long nursed the idea that an iconic reference work, especially one which celebrates and explores creative, exotic and subversive forms of language, could – should – also function as a work of art.
In 2013 I had the privilege of helping Chris Nott in the preparation of his graduation project at the Royal College of Art. Chris designed a glossary of, and a guide to MLE – Multiethnic London English – that functions as document and documentation as well as being a unique art object.
Chris, now working as a design specialist in the studios of Brody Associates, has given permission for this artefact to be shared for the first time. It consists of a glossary and a separate guidebook (which highlights the words from the glossary too)
Please do consult it, dip into it, read it from virtual cover to virtual cover, or, better still, print it on to high-quality paper and savour its tactility. Place it on a lectern under a strong light. Use it to teach your students, to inform your friends.*
The contents of this reference work, which includes contributions from other lexicographers and linguists, are still topical, relevant, revelatory three years on. The visual elements and format remain unique.
The samples of language and the commentaries presented in the book move our thinking beyond ‘slang’, beyond older notions of race and class, to consider the post-ethnic realities of a UK subject to what theorists now call Superdiversity, in which, especially but not only for younger speakers, complex questions of identity are bound up intimately with language, style and symbolism.
For me what is also essential in treating slang, dialect or jargon is to go out into the streets, the clubs, school playgrounds and workplaces and record the actual words of their users, words which might never otherwise appear in popular or academic publications.
MLE, Multiethnic London English, now sometimes referred to as Urban British English or Interethnic Vernacular was the designation given to a developing social dialect, featuring a slang vocabulary and new patterns of pronunciation and accent, that came to notice at the end of the 1990s and has since influenced the speech of younger speakers in particular beyond London itself.