I want to put in some notes, as short as possible, on London slang and swearing. These (omitting the ones that everyone knows) are some of the cant words now used in London:
A gagger—beggar or street performer of any kind. A moocher—one who begs outright, without pretence of doing a trade. A nobbier—one who collects pennies for a beggar. A chanter—a street singer. A clodhopper—a street dancer. A mugfaker—a street photographer. A glimmer—one who watches vacant motor-cars. A gee (or jee—it is pronounced jee)—the accomplice of a cheapjack, who stimulates trade by pretending to buy something. A split—a detective. A flattie—a policeman. A dideki—a gypsy. A toby—a tramp.
A drop—money given to a beggar. Fuhkum—lavender or other perfume sold in envelopes. A boozer—a public-house. A slang—a hawker’s licence. A kip—a place to sleep in, or a night’s lodging. Smoke—London. A judy—a woman. The spike—the casual ward. The lump—the casual ward. A tosheroon—a half-crown. A deaner—a shilling. A hog—a shilling. A sprowsie—a sixpence. Clods—coppers. A drum—a billy can. Shackles—soup. A chat—a louse. Hard-up—tobacco made from cigarette ends. A stick or cane—a burglar’s jemmy. A peter—a safe. A bly—a burglar’s oxy-acetylene blow-lamp.
To bawl—to suck or swallow. To knock off—to steal. To skipper—to sleep in the open.
About half of these words are in the larger dictionaries. It is interesting to guess at the derivation of some of them, though one or two—for instance, ‘funkum’ and ‘tosheroon’—are beyond guessing. ‘Deaner’ presumably comes from. ‘denier’. ‘Glimmer’ (with the verb ‘to glim’) may have something to do with the old word ‘glim’, meaning a light, or another old word ‘glim’, meaning a glimpse; but it is an instance of the formation of new words, for in its present sense it can hardly be older than motor-cars. ‘Gee’ is a curious word; conceivably it has arisen out of ‘gee’, meaning horse, in the sense of stalking horse. The derivation of ‘screever’ is mysterious. It must come ultimately from scribo, but there has been no similar word in English for the past hundred and fifty years; nor can it have come directly from the French, for pavement artists are unknown in France. ‘Judy’ and ‘bawl’ are East End words, not found west of Tower Bridge. ‘Smoke’ is a word used only by tramps. ‘Kip’ is Danish. Till quite recently the word ‘doss’ was used in this sense, but it is now quite obsolete.
London slang and dialect seem to change very rapidly. The old London accent described by Dickens and Surtees, with v for w and w for v and so forth, has now vanished utterly. The Cockney accent as we know it seems to have come up in the ’forties (it is first mentioned in an American book, Herman Melville’s white jacket), and Cockney is already changing; there are few people now who say ‘fice’ for ‘face’, ‘nawce’ for ‘nice’ and so forth as consistently as they did twenty years ago. The slang changes together with the accent. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, for instance, the ‘rhyming slang’ was all the rage in London. In the ‘rhyming slang’ everything was named by something rhyming with it—a ‘hit or miss’ for a kiss, ‘plates of meat’ for feet, etc. It was so common that it was even reproduced in novels; now it is almost extinct. Perhaps all the words I have mentioned above will have vanished in another twenty years.
[* It survives in certain abbreviations, such as ‘use your twopenny’ or ‘use your head.’ ‘Twopenny’ is arrived at like this: head—loaf of bread—twopenny loaf—twopenny]
The swear words also change—or, at any rate, they are subject to fashions. For example, twenty years ago the London working classes habitually used the word ‘bloody’. Now they have abandoned it utterly, though novelists still represent them as using it. No born Londoner (it is different with people of Scotch or Irish origin) now says ‘bloody’, unless he is a man of some education. The word has, in fact, moved up in the social scale and ceased to be a swear word for the purposes of the working classes. The current London adjective, now tacked on to every noun, is ——. No doubt in time —— like ‘bloody’, will find its way into the drawing-room and be replaced by some other word.
The whole business of swearing, especially English swearing, is mysterious. Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic—indeed, it is a species of magic. But there is also a paradox about it, namely this: Our intention in swearing is to shock and wound, which we do by mentioning something that should be kept secret—usually something to do with the sexual functions. But the strange thing is that when a word is well established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning; that is, it loses the thing that made it into a swear word. A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing. For example ——. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with —— which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French—for example —— which is now a quite meaningless expletive.
The word —— also, is still used occasionally in Paris, but the people who use it, or most of them, have no idea of what it once meant. The rule seems to be that words accepted as swear words have some magical character, which sets them apart and makes them useless for ordinary conversation.
Words used as insults seem to be governed by the same paradox as swear words. A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but m practice its insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning. For example, the most bitter insult one can offer to a Londoner is ‘bastard’—which, taken for what it means, is hardly an insult at all. And the worst insult to a woman, either in London or Paris, is ‘cow’; a name which might even be a compliment, for cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them. In this connexion it is interesting to see how a swear word can change character by crossing a frontier. In England you can print ‘je m’en foils’ without protest from anybody. In France you have to print it ‘je m’en f——’. Or, as another example, take the word ‘barnshoot’—a corruption of the Hindustani word bahinchut. A vile and unforgivable insult in India, this word is a piece of gentle badinage in England. I have even seen it in a school text-book; it was in one of Aristophanes’ plays, and the annotator suggested it as a rendering of some gibberish spoken by a Persian ambassador. Presumably the annotator knew what bahinchut meant. But, because it was a foreign word, it had lost its magical swear-word quality and could be printed.
One other thing is noticeable about swearing in London, and that is that the men do not usually swear in front of the women. In Paris it is quite different. A Parisian workman may prefer to suppress an oath in front of a woman, but he is not at all scrupulous about it, and the women themselves swear freely. The Londoners are more polite, or more squeamish, in this matter.
These are a few notes that I have set down more or less at random. It is a pity that someone capable of dealing with the subject does not keep a year-book of London slang and swearing, registering the changes accurately. It might throw useful light upon the formation, development, and obsolescence of words.
Last updated Thursday, June 9, 2016 at 15:46