Words come and go. I hardly noticed that ‘problem’ had become more or less obsolete in favour of ‘issue’ until it was too late to start a campaign to reinstate it. I mention this because I recently came across the memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, a London thief and swindler who was transported three times to Australia in the first 30 years of the 19th century. In addition to memoirs, which follow the usual pattern of the hard done-by innocent, what he did produce in 1818 was the first dictionary to be published in Australia.
Of course, it is really a compilation of thieves’ and London cant – but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Many of the words have fallen into disuse but ‘beak’ survives, as does ‘tanner’ meaning sixpence. Beak probably came from the German Beck.
One attractive phrase was ‘below the armpits’, which referred to a single petty larceny which meant transportation for seven years. Offences above the armpits seem to have qualified the offender for transportation for life. Any thought that ‘pigs’ comes from America in the 1960s is soon dispelled. There it is along with ‘grunters’ as a name for the police of the time. I think a ‘slavey’, meaning a servant, is now obsolete, but it lasted at least a century and a half after Vaux recorded it. ‘Slop’ was still tea 50 years ago. A ‘wack’ was (and still is) a fair share.
‘Leather Lane’ is there, meaning anything of bad quality, which presumably is how the street originally got its name. ‘Yellow’ meant jealous rather than cowardly so a husband was a ‘yellow gloak’. Not all that long ago I was speaking to a man who had married in later life. ‘She doubled me,’ he said. I took it to mean she had double-crossed him but now I wonder. Vaux has ‘to double’ or ‘to tip him the Dublin packet’ as to flee or escape. I suppose it’s not very different.
Now to new phrases. A friend said the other day: ‘He’s Dagenham’. I couldn’t think of a suitable rhyme and then he put me out of my misery, saying, ‘Two stops on from Barking’. I’m not sure that in this day and age it’s politically correct. But was slang ever?
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor