It comes to something when all that seems to be worth watching on television, now the Olympics are finished, are reruns of the Sweeney. But last night I did learn something when Regan says to Carter: ‘He fooled the chocolate.’ I couldn’t work out what he meant. Rhyming slang drops the second word, so, chocolate box? I couldn‘t think of what rhymed with that, but then the penny dropped: chocolate fudge = judge. And so I began to think of other judicial slurs.
I suppose the most common is ‘beak’, but how does that come about? As with almost everything to do with slang, there are rival theories. One is that it derives from the German ‘beck’, or magistrate, but I came across a suggestion that, during the time of jail fever, judges used to wear what amounted to a primitive gas mask, stuffed with herbs in an effort to ward off infection, which looked like a beak. But if that is correct why is a schoolmaster known as a beak? Did they carry nosegays against their pupils? Another theory is that it comes from the Old English ‘beag’, a collar worn by someone in authority.
Then there is ‘inky’ – not racial abuse but ‘inky smudge’, and yet another, ‘Barnaby’, after the Dickens novel, which lapsed from usage years ago. Although I am sure someone will write in to say they have never heard the expressions, lay magistrates rejoice in the names ‘woodentops’ or ‘muppets’.
On the subject of lay justices and the current row over hours of sitting, the stipe Pam Long, never a great admirer of her amateur colleagues, used to insist they took the traffic list because it bored her. She was once invited to take a committal at a lay court and received a courteous letter saying that the justices sat at 10am and took a coffee break at 10.45am which they hoped she would join. When she put her mind to it, Pam could be imperious and wrote back, saying thank you very much but the hours she kept were 10.30am until 1pm and 2pm until 4pm with no breaks and she intended to follow that wherever she sat.
I wonder what she would have made of the proposals for Sunday sitting. There again, when I was young, old-style committals took place on Saturday afternoons in front of stipes and it was amazing how quickly we got through them.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor