The Secret Languages Of London

By Alex Bellotti Last edited 14 months ago
The Secret Languages Of London

You hardly need to have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells to know a bit of Cockney Rhyming Slang. Originating from the East End in the mid-19th century, its playful barrowboy vernacular has graced everything from Hollywood to popular music (the Kinks song Harry Rag, for instance, derives from the rhyming slang for fag/cigarette).

However, Cockney Rhyming Slang is far from the only secret language to be used throughout the capital's history. Aristocrats, street urchins, circus folk: everyone's had their own jargon down the years.

'Ave a butchers at this example of Cockney Rhyming Slang. Photo by Paul Bommer.

Thieves' Cant

London’s underworld has never been the safest place, but in the 16th century any criminals caught plotting by police knew they weren’t just going to be slapped with a community service order. Thus began Thieves’ Cant, or 'peddler’s French', a secret parlance that largely followed English, but replaced certain words. For example, ‘shoulder tap’ meant backstab or ‘visiting the neighbours’ meant burgling.

Rumoured to have been started by Cock Lorel, the mythical Tudor ‘king of rogues’, it is hard to know just how accurate reported Thieves’ Cant is. It was quickly exploited by writers such as Thomas Dekker, whose The Bellman of London — a 1608 ‘cony-catching’ pamphlet designed to expose the tricks of thieves and ‘Abraham-men’  (beggars who pretended to have escaped from the capital’s Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital, or Bedlam) — is now regarded more as sensationalist fiction than fact.

James Hardy Vaux.

Perhaps a more trusty source comes in the form of The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux. A professional thief around Covent Garden’s then red light district who was eventually deported to Australia, his memoir lists around 700 phrases commonly used by London’s thieves. As an aside, it was the first autobiography written down under.

Back slang

Ever wondered where 'yob' first came from? Read it backwards, and you'll also have a sense of the language that created it. In the 20th century, Back slang — the first recorded instance of which is apparently in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor — was most synonymous with butchers; before supermarkets gave rise to pesky things like sell-by dates, shopkeepers would use it to tell their assistants to bring the oldest pieces of meat out for the customer.

The general rule is to reverse the lettering of words, but occasionally simple phonetics demands the addition of an extra vowel or two. 'Old' is therefore pronounced as 'dillo' or 'dello' — listen out with caution should you ever hear it from a rare butchers still fluent in Backslang.

Polari

Popularised by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams on the BBC radio show Round the Horne, Polari was a language primarily spoken by London's gay community until around the time homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. It drew from earlier forms such as Thieves' Cant and Backslang, but also from the secret languages spoken by immigrants working in the circus and fairground circuits.

Unlike the continued tourist appetite for Cockney Rhyming slang, there is now less necessity for Polari's main speakers to continue using it, though you still find the odd reference in pop culture (look up the inspiration for Morrissey's Bona Drag LP). Some terms have actually become common usage — where naff is now an accepted term for 'a bit rubbish', it originated from Polari as an acronym for someone who was 'not available for f…well, you get the idea.

Gobbledygook

The term 'anti-language' was coined by linguist Michael Halliday a few decades ago, and refers to a system of speech set up to work against the cultural norms of society. The political qualification of Polari, in this sense, is understandable, but there are also lighter examples, such as Gobbledygook.

In Victorian times, this absurdist 'anti-language' was used humorously by the working classes, deliberately toying with linguistics in a way that could be complex in itself. As Halliday writes: "One brief example, 'erectify a luxurimole flackoblots' (erect a luxurious block of flats), contains metathesis, suffixation and compounding with a common morph — all totally vacuous, hence the comic effect."

Perhaps the biggest irony of all, as Halliday also notes, is that the modern definition of Gobbledygook is most associated with beaurocrats — the straight-laced higher classes it was first set up to mock.

Although it’s become a broader term for childishness or corporate doublespeak, true Gobbledygook has been championed throughout the decades by entertainers such as Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley and comedian Spike Milligan. If you want to find a modern day torchbearer, look no further than Shoreditch’s chief dandy, Russell Brand – ‘My Booky Wook’ ring any bells?

Patches, fans and flowers

Visit the Fan Museum for a fascinating exploration of the secret code of the popular items. Photo by Treble2309.

Of course, who said that language has to be spoken? In prudish eras, where ladies were expected to be seen but not heard, accessorising became the most effective way to get a message across. In the 18th century, for instance, women used face patches to show their political allegiances (are you a Right-cheek or Left-cheeker?) or to invite kissing by placing one above the lips. according to Dr Matthew Green's London: A Travel Guide Through Time, a heart-shaped patch on the temple means 'my intellect is formidable; think carefully before talking to me'.

In Victorian Britain, even flowers held their own code. Unlike today, there were hundreds of variations in meanings: a pink carnation signalled 'I’ll never forget you', while a rhododendron meant 'Beware, I am dangerous'. A place like Covent Garden flower market then, wasn't just selling pretty things, but symbols of intent.

Some also believe that hand fans, another Victorian staple, were used in social situations to reveal a lady's status to gentlemen. According to Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy, the 19th century fan-maker, holding a fan closed but outwards-facing was to ask 'do you love me?', while holding it fanned out over part of your face meant 'I’m engaged'. Dropping the fan altogether would suggest 'Let's be friends' to a thwarted suitor. Perhaps Tinder's not such a brutal world after all.

You can learn more about fan language at Greenwich's Fan Museum.

Last Updated 11 August 2016