A quick history of British slang: how to keep the outsiders out

British cops and courts are–no surprise here–having a hard time keeping up with urban slang, which changes fast enough to baffle the people it’s meant to baffle. And cops and courts are, predictably, high on the list of baffle-targets.

So who do they turn to? A linguist who’s compiled a dictionary of what academics call MLE, or multi-ethnic London English, which has jumped the M-25 (that’s a highway that encircles London) and spread to the rest of the country.

The linguist, Tony Thorne, describes himself as an elderly white guy–by age and profession, an outsider–and despite saying that there are gaps in his knowledge he’s on a list of translators hired by the courts. The other people on the list translate from and to languages like, say, Polish or Hindi. He translates from MLE, and he’s done it for defense lawyers, prosecutors, and police.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: a camellia.

Thorne said, “I am trying to help by defending kids who are wrongly accused by their language and go after the people who have committed violent crimes.”

What he does is translate lyrics, messages, and that sort of thing. What he doesn’t do is sit between two people telling each one what the other one said.

MLE mixes (and here I’m quoting not Thorne but the article where I learned about him) “white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish.”

MLE, Thorne said, “has a social and cultural power and is evolving in a way most slangs aren’t. It points up the real diversity of Britain and it is not ghettoised ethnicity. The theorists call it super-diversity.”

To translate that (I can, if highly motivated, which I’m usually not, translate from academese), it’s alive and changing and it’s used by people from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Like many–maybe all–slangs, the purpose of MLE is to keep the authorities out while the insiders communicate with each other. Changing quickly keeps the boundaries between the two groups relatively solid.

That follows a rich tradition. Cockney rhyming slang developed an inspired system of keeping the boundaries solid. It rhymes a word–say, feet–with a phrase: platters of meat. Then (most of the time) it drops the rhyming half of the phrase, leaving just platters. If you don’t know what it means, you don’t have a hope in hell of figuring it out.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says it was developed by street traders, beggars, and petty criminals in the first half of the nineteenth century. The website Cockney Rhyming Slang sticks with the more respectable people on the list, mentioning the street traders and leaving everyone else out. Take your pick.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang have been swept into the more general language and are still in use, so that a neighbor greeted me one winter morning by saying, “It’s parky,” which comes from parky in the mould–cold.

Predictably (and probably satisfyingly) enough, I said, “It’s what?”

Another slang, Polari, was used from the eighteenth century to the 1970s. It was made up of Italian, Occitan, French, Romany, Yiddish, rhyming slang, backslang (where you pronounce words as if they were spelled backwards), and possibly a few other bits and pieces.

It started in pubs near the London docks and was picked up by sailors in the merchant fleet. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was used primarily in gay pubs, on merchant ships, and in the theater, and if you think that’s an odd mix of people and places, you don’t know your gay history. It was also used by lesbians, circus people, and prostitutes. And–well, different sources will add different groups to the list, but you get the drift.  Marginalized people. People who had reasons to want to talk to each other openly and secretly, both at the same time.

Polari began to die out after homosexuality was partially (and later fully) decriminalized, which is also when gay liberation began championing openness. It wasn’t needed anymore.

An older slang, thieves’ cant, may date back to the 1530s and was used by criminals. Or criminals, beggars, and Gypsies. Or–well, somebody. Outsiders forming an in-group that keeps respectable people out. It all gets a little hazy, though, because the only record we have comes from the kind of respectable people who wrote stuff down and whose writings got preserved. In other words, what we know about  it is second hand and comes from writers who looked down on cant speakers. And were fascinated by them. And may or may not have known what they were talking about.

Enough respectable people were fascinated that canting dictionaries were popular. The language made its way into literature and plays. But a WikiWhatsia entry raises the question of how well the written version of the language matched the language used on the street.

“A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by Gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the Gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.”

It’s a lost bit of history that we can’t reconstruct, but we can know, at least, that it was there. It’s a bit like archeology. You find these bits and pieces. You can make educated guesses, but the world that made them is gone. You can’t be sure you’re right.

79 thoughts on “A quick history of British slang: how to keep the outsiders out

  1. Close the pneumonia hole, I need a coffin nail. Give me the devil on a stick. Have some hooch from my hogs down on the creek in the back lot. I will polish my hog’s leg. Watch our for the fuzz and the bubble gum machine. Joe dill be tripping downtown later tonight to deliver the corn. It was a good run.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Slang is fascinating and so easy to get wrong if you’re an outsider trying to be an insider. I’ve read a fair number of romances set in the Regency period in which the authors have included words and phrases taken from cant dictionaries of the time or (more probably) from other authors. The same few phrases appear time after time and they almost always read as if they have been dropped into the sentence for effect, rather than flowing out of it naturally.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Thanks for that. Fascinating. The story of the English language is so interesting, and evolving, and slang is obviously part of it – especially when a word makes it into mainstream usage. I’d never heard of Polari, but recordings of Julian and Sandy are hilarious, even now. We got a lot of new words during WW2, I gather, too… Is there a difference between slang and the use of abbreviations? Like ‘bish’ for rubbish or ‘uni’ for university.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I’m convinced that the spoken language drives the written (and eventually the formal, accepted) language. It’s where the life in a language is. So for all my jokes about the insanity of the English language, I do love it, in all its contradictions and silliness. Anyway, in my book the abbreviations are slang and will-some of them-eventually become standard, the way rota(as far as I can tell, as an outsider) has. They don’t quite keep outsiders out, but they do function to mark an in-group.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I never knew that’s where “Parky” came from. I just used it. Polari used to be used in the comedy routines of Kenneth Williams in the 1950s. He was in a show on Radio 4 (I can’t remember it’s name, I’m not old enough to have heard it at the time, but I have heard clips of it), it might have been “Round the Horne” He played a very camp character Julian who would use it – audience at the time thought it was hilarious (although very weirdly being gay was definitely illegal at the time).

    Liked by 5 people

      • How ‘Round the Horne’ got away with Julian and Sandy in that period I will never know…and in the same programme Kenneth Williams had the folk singer character Rambling Sid Rumpo with a fine line in innuendo…his highwayman whose habit was to wurgle the women and scrope all the men but, should he have his life to live over again, would scrope all the women and wurgle the men…if my memeory serves me correctly.

        Liked by 2 people

    • We always listened with Mum and Dad to Round the Horne over Sunday lunch and it was funny. I just thought the characters were amusing, but of course adults knew they were gay, but all good clean fun. ‘I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy’. You still come across older gay men who introduce their ‘friend’ – I guess partner or husband does not slip off the tongue so easily for them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Also older people (all types) who still use “partner” to mean in business, dancing, travel through dangerous territory, etc., not merely bed. Sometimes I warn people: I don’t care what others get up to, privately, with their own friends, and if close enough to know that someone’s a lesbian I’m glad to learn she has a girlfriend & is thus unlikely to hit on me–but I *do* mind the debasement of “partner” by people who’ve never even had a real synergistic partnership. Fingernails on chalkboard time.

        I actually mind lesbians saying “wife” less…although I maintain that same-sex marriage was a pretext for denying widows’ and other survivors’ rights.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s messy. My initial reaction to the use of partner to mean something other than a person you were in business with was that it sounded absurd. Having gotten used to it, though, I’m grateful for it–not only because it allows me to describe my, ahem, partner something as something less sexual-sounding than my lover (most people really don’t want to think about that), but also because I don’t need to know which of the heterosexual couples around us are married and which ones aren’t. Partner will do.

          And because I love confusion, I’ll mention a gay couple I know where person 1 calls person 2 his husband but person 2 calls person 1 his partner. This business of changing language is always messy, but it’s inevitable.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Agreed. I’m comfortable with “girlfriend” but also aware that some people think that ought to mean an old friend from girlhood whom they never dreamed of etc. etc., so…what can anyone do?

            Liked by 1 person

    • It was definitely “Round The Horne”. My friends and I used to listen to it when we were teenagers. The camp (well gay really) couple who spoke Polari were Julian and Sandy, played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick. I think the characters were devised by one of the scriptwriters, Barry Took, as was the idea of them using Polari. It was amazing that the people responsible for the show got away with it, but I think their bosses at the BBC didn’t know what was going on so didn’t think to question it. Most of the audience probably didn’t either, but they still found it funny.

      RoundThe Horne is broadcast fairly often on BBC Radio Four Extra, and though a little dated now (we are talking about the early to mid 1960s) it’s still funny – worth a listen.
      “Nice to varda your jolly old eke!” as Julian and Sandy would say to Kenneth Horne.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not enough of a linguist to know the difference between the two, but my best guess is that they come into existence in different ways. I just erased three different attempts at defining the difference and decided to give up before I make a fool of myself.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This is actually fascinating. Language evolves and changes constantly, fitting the country. The yiddish of someone from one country will be different to someone from another. The English we talk is different to the English of another continent (or as you said suburb). Its just fascinating. Thanks for writing this up!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I didn’t know that about Yiddish, although I should have guessed it. It lived in so many countries, rubbing up against so many languages, that it couldn’t have helped evolving differently. But what little Yiddish I know is from my New York childhood–a few words here, a few words there, but never a whole language. My father’s parents spoke it, but their children put it behind them. I expect the bits and pieces I picked up had themselves adapted to the city around them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I spoke wiv a Cockney accent when I was a small child and no one quite knew from where I’d got it as no one around me was Cockney. My father had been born in Gravesend, schooled in Liverpool (blimey! you shouldve ‘eard ‘im when Z Cars first come on the telly!) and served his apprenticeship on the Clyde.
    I still tend to pick up the accents of other people and sometimes the language mannerisms. Still go down the frog for the linens on a Sundee.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s the second mention of the frog but the first one for the linens. Please, please, please: Translate that for me.

      My partner absorbs accents too, which (since she hasn’t absorbed all of the British one) has left her accent a bit of a hodgepodge–basially American midwestern (although she’s from Texas and lived in New York for years) with British inserts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cockney rhyming. Frog and toad = road. Linen drapers = papers. But if you was a bit boracic you didn’t go down the frog. Boracic lint = skint (broke.No money)
        Fairly easy to find the rhyme, but “bins” is a little more tricky; short for binoculars, means reading spectacles.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It really is incredibly inventive. And frustrating for the uninitiated. All I can do is stand back and admire while understanding–well, not quite nothing (thanks to you and the other people who’ve given me a few words) but not very damn much.


          • I did have a dictionary, but it’s been donated to a “good cause” Things you might need to know are “porkies” or “pork pies” meaning lies. Possibly applicable the the POTUS but he’d probably claim it to be a fake! “Brahms and Liszt”= drunk. Oh, bugger! You’re American and pissed doesn’t mean drunk to you. I think you’re on your Todd, girl. a difficult one- Todd Sloane was a jockey, so what I’m saying is that you’re on your own-I’m going to have another Vera an’ leave you to it.
            Vera Lynn…I’ll leave you to work out the rhyme!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Now that you remind me, friends gave me dictionary. I’ve used it a few times but it didn’t occur to me to bring it out for this discussion.

              You’re right that being American means I need a whole extra layer of translation for some of the more creative ones. God, the time and thought that must’ve gone into this.

              Liked by 1 person

    • I know just how you feel. My partner’s from Texas. I’m okay with most southern accents when I know what we’re talking about, but if someone just turns to me and starts talking, I’ve been known to go blank.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. There are multiple Virginia accents. They identify which part of Virginia a person is from, the person’s age, level of education, age, gender, arguably even which side of cultural debates the person is on…and some of them sound both ugly and incomprehensible to me.

        I grew up only *mostly* in Virginia and, for public performance purposes, practiced enunciating clearly. As a general rule, Virginia accents are not enunciated clearly, but the clearer they are, the higher up the scale. So older Virginians divide between those who appreciate that I sound like a professional reader-for-the-blind, which I have in fact been, and those who think I sound like a snob who needs to be taken down a peg.

        My own generation, being exposed to other ways of speaking via records and radio, sound to me as if they either shifted toward mainstream-midwestern speech patterns, or else exaggerated the downscale dialect and then added features to that to make themselves even harder for other people to understand. I don’t understand them much more easily than someone learning English as a second language does.

        Fortunately the young seem to have no idea what the fuss is about.

        Liked by 1 person

        • In that case, here’s to the young.

          I think you’re right that one person’s perfect professional accent is another person’s snobbery. You can’t really win. In Britain, people make lethal fun of each other’s accents. I’m sure I miss some of the undertones and overtones of it all, but they–or many of them–are good at it.


  7. I was hoping for some examples, you have any?

    I used to belong to a backpacking group (FB killed it), we had a member from the Great Smokies (mountainous area in the southern states) who would write like he spoke. I would get a headache trying to understand just what he was saying. Words like oudas (or was is owdas?), which was outdoors.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was only aware of rhyming slang. A friend introduced it to us. The subject of slang, in general is fascinating. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and they have a group of words not in general use outside that region. My favorite is ‘jagoff’ which generally translates to jerk, more of less. Thanks for the continuing education.

    Liked by 2 people

    • An old friend from Pittsburgh used to say “jagoff.” Since his name was Jack, I just figured it was a delicate way of not insulting himself while he was insulting someone else. It never crossed my mind that it was a regional thing.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Loooots of comments…I adore how language evolves out of the human desire to connect, no to be known, with and by your own tribe. So much American slang that the kids say now came from underground gay culture in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And they think they discovered it.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Fascinating blog and fascinating comments. Don’t know Parky or Polari and the interview was a hoot. Languages change all the time and sometimes because of misunderstanding and sometimes deliberately. But it’s human to want to have an inside scoop (and where did that come from?) and a secret language. We’ll just have to keep up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You remind me of the secret languages that we passed around in grade school–first pig Latin and then the more complicated ithiga, which didn’t just add a sound at the end of the word but at the end of every syllable. (It seemed to take forever just to get a simple sentence out.) So we all understood each other but the adults didn’t–and I’m pretty sure didn’t want to. It’s the same impulse, isn’t it? And then there’s someone I knew whose parents were immigrants and spoke a language other than English–one they never taught her–so if they had something to say only to each other, they could. Anytime. You’re right, I think: It’s very human to want that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Frightful nuisance, I am, but just thought I’d poke another spoke in your wheel…I know it as a Scottish Border expression, so somewhere between Fife and Newcastle. Courting couples, wanting some private conversation after tea with her family, would “go doon the hol an’ cow’nt th’ peelins.” Down the hall (passageway) and count the palings on the front fence. Just an expression to get away from parental observation.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Very. The “secret” languages in our school filtered down to the ditinctly uncool. As evidence of that, I offer the fact that I learned them. And I suspect the adults around us had learned them when they were kids and didn’t bother to let us know that they understood, although I have no evidence for that or actual data on how far back the languages go. It’d be an interesting thing to find out.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My favourite was always from a BBC detective show where the detective, Frost, would accuse the criminal of telling a “porkie pie” (a lie). I still use it today, and no one knows what I mean, which is kind of the point!

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. I have heard more cockney rhyming slang from north London and south London cockneys than from any in the east end… and I was ‘born within the sound of Bow Bells’ so I’m ‘officially’ one myself. My husband likes to test me on it.. I usually fail!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What a fascinating post, Ellen. I too feel like that every time I go to a new place. We moved to NY recently and my daughter told me they speak different English in each borough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure it was a full-out language. Probably a slang, like rhyming slang, that rides on the back of a language, using its structures and connectors but still dense enough to be inaccessible to an outsider. The other day, someone said, “Nice titfer,” to me. I looked satisfying blank, so he said, “Tit for tat, hat.” Without the translation, I’d never have gotten there. It’s breathtaking, the creativity that goes into these things.


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