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.

Cockney rhyming slang: it’s real

“It’s parky,” J. said while our dogs sniffed each other in the middle of the empty road.

I must’ve looked as blank as I was.

“You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?” he asked.

I hadn’t even thought to say so. That’s how blank I was.

“Haven’t a clue.”

“Parky in the mold. Cold. “

Not J.'s dog. I'm cheating. Photo by Sellys, on Wikimedia.

Not J.’s dog. I’m cheating. Photo by Sellys, on Wikimedia.

I managed to say, “Oh.” Then I managed to say “I need a translator.” I didn’t manage to ask what parky was, or what it had to do with a mold. I understand just enough about rhyming slang to know that the phrases aren’t nonsense sounds—they mean something—so it would’ve made sense to ask.

If you haven’t heard of rhyming slang, here’s the five-second summary: It started in the mid-nineteenth century, in east London. One theory claims it was used by thieves as a more or less secret language and another says it started as a game. A third says it was a way of reinforcing neighborhood solidarity. Whatever the origin, it works like this: You take a word and find a phrase that rhymes with it: stairs with apples and pears. Then you drop the word that actually rhymes and say, “I’m going up the apples.” And you leave your clueless friend standing in the middle of the road with her jaw hanging open while the dogs sniff each other.

J. and I said goodbye and he promised to clue me in to a few phrases so I can respond to them and make people think, Ooh, she knows what it’s about.

Although clearly I don’t.