On a sclip to the flyers
In 2006 Stuart Pessok, Managing Editor of the trade’s biggest selling newspaper Taxi ran a series entitled ‘We Speak Your Language’ in which he invited readers to submit examples of cab slang in an attempt to keep the language alive.
He put together a ten-page glossary of the cabbie’s lexis.
[I]t was divided into locations and buildings, ranks and shelters, drivers, cabs, passengers, the Public Carriage Office (The Knowledge and subsequent technicalities), money, the police and miscellaneous. Thus he produced the bible of the cabbie’s universe.
The Bell and Horns cab shelter will resound to tales of trapping a job as you set down a punter at the Shakespeare during the kipper season and take a bowler-hat to the Inside-Out Building only to find that he is a bilker.
Driving a cab is a lonely profession, for much of your working life is spent with only strangers for company. So when cabbies meet colleagues it is hardly surprising that much banter takes place.
As London’s cabbies have been working the streets for nearly 400 years it should come as no surprise that the trade is rich in parochial slang. We learned acolytes of The Knowledge have our own language, although, since it stems from a closed, occupational group it should properly be referred to as jargon. In this case it is taxi-speak, which seems to have existed since the mid-19th century. It is, one might suggest, the ultimate take on ‘London in Slang’.
A butter-boy whose a Gantville Cowboy can easily find him (or her) self fouling the rank, which is not that he has enjoyed a curry the previous night. The Grapes of Wrath are a common occupational hazard another is finding one caught short. Should this happen when you are near the Aztec Temple the Iron Lung is but a short drive away. This is a urinal in Regency Place opposite Portuguese Tony’s Café where you can have a splosh with other mushers.
Jargon proper comes from within: the drivers and the vehicles. An owner-driver has been a musher since the 1880s; the cab roof being equivalent to a mush, an umbrella. The Gantville cowboys: predominantly Jewish cabbies who live around Gants Hill, Newbury Park, Ilford and Claybury; Copperarse or Leatharse: one who works long hours hence the condition of their trousers; Butterboy: a novice, likely to be that butter that won’t melt in an innocent mouth, this cabbie jargon, like many words is used by other professions, in this case the police.
To suck the mop is to be left on a rank when everyone else has got jobs (literally trips, figuratively passengers). Ranking on a long ’un is driving around in search of fares and hanging it up waiting outside hotels, lights off, ready to jump on the Billy Bunters (punters; an old squirt is an ageing gent, a mystery a young woman). A shtumer, originally a bad cheque, is a booked job that on arrival has evaporated.
Driving your sherbet you might be given a shtoomer by your radio circuit or at Harabs when on point you could forget to hit the zeiger (the meter maker’s name) when a punter gets in which would mean that you would do a stalker as you duck and dive through the Dirty Dozen in Soho.
Many nicknames for the destinations and ranks seem to have fallen into disuse: The lines of cabs that once marked The Ditch (Fleet Street) are no longer needed. The punning and disinformational terms have fallen out of favour. Bishopsgate: the Athenaeum wherein crowd the senior clergy; The Deaf and Dumb: the wartime ministry of information, The Flowerpot: Covent Garden market. Harley Street was The Resistance: as in fighting c. 1945 against the nascent NHS.
The Dirty Dozen refers to twelve streets that take you from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road without using Oxford Street: Crossrail has seen that one off. It’s a long time since anywhere in Soho qualified, as once did Archer Street, as Poverty Corner, the poverty presumably being that of the musicians who sought work there, rather than the drug dealers who traded amongst them. Admirals the name of Dolphin Square which has mansion blocks bearing the names of maritime heroes. Dead Zoo unsurprisingly refers to the Natural History Museum. Anyone who has been involved in lengthly litigation would like the name given to the home of many top solicitors’ offices Bedford Row – Shark’s Parade.
New ones have been invented The Wet Doughnut for the Diana memorial and the unlamented bendy-buses were dubbed sixty-foot accordions. The cab itself, better known as a sherbert (dab) has been given the moniker after a popular modern author Sandy McNab, while many of the old hands still refer to it by it Russian-Jewish name a droshky.
London cabbies once called the minicab men touts or scabs if they were illegal and little people if not. Now their cars are big and shiny, determine themselves ‘private hire vehicles’ and pose as cut-price challenge the traditional cabbies. Do Addison Lee’s drivers have their own jargon? Is any among them likely to collect it? It is unlikely as has happened with the London Taxi profession.
Sarf London boy Graham Gates who passed The Knowledge in 1992 has continued compiling the original list started by Stuart Pessok and has written a book on this fascinating subject London Taxi Driver Slang published by Abson Books. Be Lucky!