English slang is constantly evolving. One driving force has been waves of indigent immigrants who have added vocabulary to the speech of the underclass of the day. Some of this slang has stuck, and the words have become recognised by all English speakers; some has been overlaid and forgotten. Let us look at some of these waves of immigrants in reverse chronological order.
The period after the Second World War was the golden age of radio. In Britain this was a monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which tried to enforce a strict moral censorship that was at odds with the taste of returning servicemen. Scriptwriters, therefore, had to please two masters: the seaside-postcard-loving public, and the heirs of the strict Presbyterian Lord Reith. This was the heyday of POLARI, which was technically a jargon of theatrical people and homosexuals, who were persecuted but who, at least some of the theatrical ones, enjoyed danger and notoriety. The BBC used to maintain a substantial handbook listing all the topics that were out of bounds to comedians. This was a very long list, and it included religion, politicians, drunkenness and sexual activity of any sort. So scriptwriters exerted tremendous ingenuity in devising humorous stories that involved gay bishops and sozzled politicos. The use of the Polari (Italian parlare) language was one of several subterfuges that they used to conceal their deviousness. An example that we are still familiar with: “scarper”, to run away. (Italian scappare with the same meaning).
Perhaps next we should look at SHELTA, the language of Irish tinkers or diddikoys. This language uses Irish vocabulary and English grammar. Its main function is to conceal the speakers' activities from the police. An example: “phoney” from Irish fáinne meaning “ring”, referring to an age-old scam where the victim is induced to purchase a gold ring at a knock-down price, only to discover that it is made of brass. An Oxford anthropologist told me that Irish tinkers, historically, are descended from royalty displaced by English invasions of Ireland, explaining their aversion to work of any kind. I once created a minor sensation when I was asked to help set up, on behalf of the County Education Department, an exhibition of Travellers' culture. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I overheard a woman say “Fuinneog”. So I accordingly opened some windows, leaving all the Travellers discussing this stranger who apparently knew their secret language.
In the mid-nineteenth century there was a substantial immigration of YIDDISH speaking Askenazim. Many were very poor, and there would have been more than one gonoph “thief” among their ranks. Being not only poor, but of different language, religion and dress they excited some xenophobia. Fagin in Oliver Twist was a real person, whose trial was a newspaper sensation. Dickens used the story not to promote hatred of the Jews but to advance the dreadful moral that the orphaned and destitute were being better provided for by a Jewish criminal than by the workhouses of a Christian State with all its resources. Yiddish has more or less disappeared now, but in 1962 I would hear it regularly used in the East End. I used to work with a beautiful young lady who would demonstrate the remarkable facility of the language as a medium for swearing. Once the Jews moved out of the underclass and took to speaking English, their contribution to slang dried up. Here is an example from before the First World War: Oof meaning “money”, short for Oof der Tish meaning “On the table”, i.e. “money up front”.
We know nowadays that ROMANY is in origin a North Indian language with its base in Sanskrit. They gradually moved into Europe and spread out, so that their language partly fused with the native languages that they come in contact with, so that there are many forms of Romany. At one time there was an English Romany and a distinct Welsh Romany. They called themselves “Romany” because the Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire through which they travelled called themselves Romans; hence they were claiming to be locals. The alternative name Gypsies is due to a claim to be Egyptians, since it was thought in the early Renaissance period that the Egyptians had been privy to all sorts of occult knowledge. So it was as Egyptians that they cast dooks or dukke-raipens, that is, told fortunes. The main period of Romany immigration was during the Commonwealth. In an age when most people lived static lives, the itinerant Romanies provided important services such as mending pans, shoeing horses, horse-trading, seasonal agricultural work, and transmission of English folk songs and mummers' plays.
Of course the Gypsies were not always averse from choring from the gorgios (Hindi cor = “thief”, Greek georgos = “earth worker” = “farmer” = “settled person”, that is, not a Gypsy). They were seen to be romantic people, and their numbers were maintained by adventurous young people who joined them from the ranks of the native population. One such was George Borrow (1803-1881), whose Lavengro (= “Language master”) 1851 and The Romany Rye (= “Gentleman”) 1857 introduced a sanitised and romanticised description of Romany culture to the British middle classes. His “Mr Petulengro” (= “Horseshoe master”), in his books the King of the Gypsies, became as plain “Mr Smith” a valued friend of Queen Victoria.
Just one example of a Romany word that everybody knows: when Mr Petulengro addressed George Borrow as “brother” he actually used the word “pal”. This word can be traced back to the Sanskrit bhrat through many intervening mutations, so it is cognate with the English word with the same meaning.
Now let us move our Tardis back to the year 1453. Everybody knows that that was the year in which Mehmet II captured Constantinople and put an end to the second Thousand Year Reich (the second Roman one, that is.) But very few English people know that 1453 also marked the Battle of Castillon, which took place a few miles east of Bordeaux. The victories of Crecy and Agincourt are prominent in English history books, but the final decisive battle of the Hundred Years' War in which the English were thrown out of France for good (except for Calais) does not get a mention. One consequence of the Battle of Castillon was that a rag tag and bobtail of unemployed soldiery, unpaid, undisciplined and unskilled in anything useful, found themselves in England. These men populated the marauding gangs that fought the sporadic and desultory Wars of the Roses. Their language was called CANT (northern French chanter, southern French cantar, meaning “sing” therefore “talk”).
Before the Romanies took over itinerant trades, the descendants of these soldiers carried on much the same functions. So Cant was also known as “Pedlars' French”. It provided a great deal of underworld slang, though not so much remains in modern English. Perhaps the best known word nowadays is booze (French boisson = “drink”). Not all their vocabulary was French, though, reflecting the mixed origins of mercenary troops. “A child” was kinchin (German Kindchen), so that a kinchin cove was a “boy” and a kinchin mort was a “girl”, and a married woman was autem or autel mort (autel being the French for “altar”). Dickens has a queer cove meaning “a strange man”. To shove the queer was to pass bad money. A lot of the vocabulary of Cant is of obscure origin. For instance, any kind of building was a ken (perhaps related to the English “kennel”) so that an establishment for alcoholic refreshment was called a boozeken. A “thing” was a cheat (French chose) so that a gallows was a nubbing cheat. Nouns could be formed from adjectives by adding the suffix mans (French -ment) so that darkmans meant “night”.
The last time I saw an example of Cant was the name of a farm in the South African Knersvlakte, just off the N7 highway. It is called “Douse-the-Glim” which means “Put the Light Out”. It is still unparliamentary to accuse an Honourable Member of cant; it means “hypocrisy”. To call an Honourable Member a “canting rogue” is as impolite as it gets. My father (born 1901) described Mr Gladstone (died 1898) as “full of cant”. I do not know whether he was referring to the GOM's nocturnal missions to save the souls of prostitutes, to the fact that he owed his original election to Parliament to his membership of Britain's most illustrious slave-owning family, or to something else buried deep in Liberal politics.
An exploration of the Cant language ought to reveal some linguistic gems and uncover some fascinating social history.