POSH?!

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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.

 

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Multiethnic London English – a Glossary

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

Th-fronting, cross cultural,

dipthong shifting, multi-ethnic,

L-vocalisation, K-backing fusion of language”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Chris Nott’s work. First the Glossary

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

 

 

 

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

BANTER

TOP BANTZ

Tony Thorne

B2

Banter noun good natured raillery, badinage, chaffing, teasing repartee, clever chit-chat, laddish drollery, facetious, ironic verbal to-and-fro

 verb to converse teasingly, chaff, rib

A national sport? An elaborate private joke between likeminded people? A healthy bonding, a celebration of mateyness?

Banter matters, not least because of its links with bullying, sporting slurs, even rape. In more subtle ways it keys into topical issues like diversity, gender relations and class. Its subversive humour is central to our national identity. A proper investigation is overdue.

For someone like me who suffers long enforced absences in humourless territories overseas, it’s an important pleasure to keep in touch with our own vibrant national conversation, online via Twitter, MumsNet, Popbitch, etc. then to return in person and join in for real. But what a conversation. The soundtrack to modern Britain is made up of non-stop punning, teasing, riffing on catchphrases and clichés, knowing references to pop-culture tropes, gossip and ribaldry and sustained abuse of the privileged and pretentious.

Coming back to the UK, I’m always struck by the native wit immediately on offer from strangers, whether shop assistants, taxi drivers, football fans or simply anonymous citizens waiting in a checkout queue. Banter is absolutely central to an English sense of self and others. For us it’s a default setting. Only the English among all the peoples of the planet are required to be funny, about everything, all the time. It reflects both the worst – the strident endless chippiness – and the best – our cheerful fellow-feeling – of us as a people. In fact I think that where it was once the upside of the reserve and insularity that used to afflict us as a nation, those things no longer apply, leaving only a free-for-all by a newly empowered, insolent and fantastically talkative public.

 

cluedont @cluedont

I remember the first time I heard a man use the word ‘bantz’ as an abbreviation for ‘banter’, and he’s got the scars to prove it.

 

We should look more closely at the fascinating history of banter, consider its components: wit, facetiousness, irony, wordplay, sarcasm, looking at examples and analysing its uses:  bonding, bullying, self-defence – and seduction. Examining both sides of this double-edged weapon, we have to consider both the cruelty (when black teenager Stephen Lawrence’s killers were questioned by reporter Martin Bashir about their racist video rant they replied ‘Harmless banter, Martin. Harmless banter’) and the poignancy associated with the practice (ex-players invariably cite it as what they most miss when they retire from sport; hard-pressed police officers I interviewed said that they measured a station by whether the team there ‘had good banter’).

 

Twitflup ‏@Twitflup 

“Whenever I see my husband naked he reminds me of a beautifully coloured bird”

“Peacock?”

“Well it’s more like a baby carrot to be honest”

 

The fun started in earnest, or, another view has it, the rot began to set in, when in October 2007 UKTV relaunched its UKTV G2 channel under the name of Dave. ‘Everyone knows a bloke called Dave’ the press release quipped. The channel’s slogan was, and is, ‘The Home of Witty Banter.’ It was thus that a national pastime which hitherto had gone unnoticed, or had been taken for granted, was highlighted, commercialised and sold back to its legions of fans. By 2012 the b-word was all over t-shirts, posters, mugs and websites, namechecked in radio and TV broadcasts and arraigned over and over again by right-thinking (or sanctimonious) journalists in the ‘quality’ press.

 

David Stokes ‏@scottywrotem 

Hate it when I’m ironing and people say “can you do my shirt” & “iron these trousers” and “you’re going to have to leave sir, this is Ikea”.

 

Mutating from a mildly amusing tic into a divisive social issue, where did banter come from, and where is it going? It has come to be our defining characteristic, beloved of the football dressing room and Sky Sports, student bedsittees and Twitter devotees, loathed by Guardianistas, feminists and right-thinking metrosexuals…debated by the chattering classes, but practised – unusually – by all the classes, and, despite what some claim, all the genders, too.

 

Banter is a catch-all word for idiocy that warns the rest of us that Here Be Lads. Banter is Soccer AM. It is Andy Gray. It is middle-aged men on Top Gear pretending that they are edgy outsiders by mocking society’s weakest, then going home to Chipping Norton where they live two doors down from the Prime Minister. It is an English stag do in Dublin or Amsterdam with matching T-shirts

– Lizzy Porter, Daily Telegraph

 

Banter is arguably part of a very ancient tradition that takes in ‘flyting’, the ritual exchange of insults practised by Norse and Scottish poets in the fifth century. The word itself, though, is not so very old and its origins are unusually obscure. When bantering appeared, first as verb then as noun, in the street slang of the late seventeenth century it referred to exchanges that were more aggressive and vicious than the mild, playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks, often preceded in descriptions by ‘harmless’, ‘good-natured’ or ‘witty’, that it had become by the twentieth century. It first meant to trick or bamboozle somebody, to hold them up to ridicule and to give them a ‘roasting’, in a term of the day we still possess. The first recorded instance of the verb is in Madam Fickle, an otherwise unremarkable play of 1676 by Thomas D’Urfey, in which Zechiel cries to his brother: ‘Banter him, banter him, Toby. ’Tis a conceited old Scarab, and will yield us excellent sport — go play upon him a little — exercise thy Wit.’ A letter of 1723 equated banter with ‘Billingsgate’, the foul and vituperative language used by the porters at the London fish market of that name. Banter became notorious because of a spirited attack on it by Jonathan Swift in a famous article he wrote for The Tatler in 1710. In it he attacked what he called ‘the continual corruption of our English tongue’:

‘The third refinement observable in the letter I send you, consists in the choice of certain words invented by some pretty fellows; such as banterbamboozlecountry put, and kidney, as it is there applied; some of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others are in possession of it. I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mob and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.’

In the same year he referred to the term in his Apology to The Tale of a Tub writing that ‘This polite word of theirs was first borrowed from the bullies in White-Friars, then fell among the footmen, and at last retired to the pedants; by whom it is applied as properly to the productions of wit, as if I should apply it to Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematics.’ Linguists have failed to identify the ultimate origin of the word, but I think it’s very probably from rural dialect, in which ‘banty’ can still mean small, aggressive and irritating.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries banter most usually denoted fairly gentle ribbing by friends, acquaintances and workmates. Its connotations have subtly changed again more recently, moving closer perhaps to its original edgier senses, but with added nuances. My survey of recent references from the US shows that there it is nowadays most often linked to the language of would-be seduction – invariably by hapless males of females – or to sales talk or business slogans. In the UK on the other hand it is most likely to be associated with sports fans (where it may be allied to the tradition of ‘sledging’), students (with their ‘neknomination’ drinking rituals and ‘violation nite’ initiation ceremonies) and of course with a myriad amateur and professional humourists, from the wannabe standups and scriptwriters competing for attention on social media sites to the established big guns firing off salvoes in Mock the Week, QI and the like.

 

Liza Thompson ‏@LizaJThompson 

Today, in celebration of Kierkegaard’s birthday, I’m slumped in a chair in a state of existential despair #curtainsclosedandeverything

 from Camberwell

 

B2

Update from June 2017: I talked to Archie Bland about this subject and here is his long read in the Guardian this week…

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/30/the-age-of-banter

And now, in May 2019, Billy Bragg comments on the visual banter that got Danny Baker fired by the BBC…