London’s secret languages

Being born at the Middlesex Hospital, I speculated, not unreasonably if thought, that with the lower traffic noise levels of post-war London I could claim to be a cockney, as the sound of Bow Bells were just within earshot. Unfortunately, once embarking on The Knowledge I discovered the Bow Bells had been destroyed by a German bomb on 10th May 1941.


The cockney language better described as barrow boy vernacular is derived from secret conversations during the 19th century to obscure conversations from the authorities. The memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, a professional thief around Covent Garden’s, then red-light district, is the first reliably recorded account of cockney. He 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. The first recorded instance of which is apparently in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Butchers would tell their assistants to bring the oldest pieces of meat out for the customer by reversing the lettering of words, but occasionally simple phonetics demanded the addition of an extra vowel or two. ‘Old’ is therefore pronounced as ‘dillo’ or ‘dello’.


When I was very young and even more naive than today, I loved listening to the BBC radio show Round the Horne. One regular piece featured ‘Julian’ and ‘Sandy’ played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams talking between themselves and throwing in the odd strange word which I found fascinating adding it to my lexicon. Little did I know they were speaking Polari, a language primarily spoken by London’s gay community until around the time homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. My rapt attention added to my burgeoning vocabulary. Naff is now an accepted term for ‘a bit rubbish’, but it originated as an acronym for someone who was ‘not available for f… well, you get the idea, little did I realise at the time.


Another comic of my childhood was Stanley Unwin who made a good living speaking rubbish. In Victorian times, this absurd ‘anti-language was used humorously by the working classes, deliberately toying with linguistics in a way that could be complex in itself. Perhaps the biggest irony is that the modern definition of Gobbledygook is most associated with bureaucrats — the straight-laced higher classes it was first set up to mock. If you want to find a modern-day torchbearer, look no further than Russell Brand and his ‘My Booky Wook’.

On a sclip to the flyers

In 2006 Stuart Pessok, the then Managing Editor of Taxi the trade’s biggest selling newspaper, 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 lexicon.

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. Acolytes of The Knowledge have our own language, although, since it stems from a closed, occupational group, the terms should be referred to as jargon.

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. 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 are predominantly Jewish cabbies who live around Gants Hill, Newbury Park, Ilford and Claybury; Copperarse or Leatherarse is one who works long hours hence the condition of their trousers; Butterboy is a novice, as butter won’t melt in that innocent’s mouth.

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 is 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 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 destinations and ranks seem to have fallen into disuse. The lines of cabs that once marked The Ditch, the jargon for Fleet Street, are no longer needed. Some of the punning and disinformation terms have fallen out of favour. Bishopsgate is the Athenaeum Club wherein members were comprised of the senior clergy. The Deaf and Dumb is the wartime ministry of information. The Flowerpot was once Covent Garden market and Harley Street was The Resistance as consultants were then in 1948 fighting against the nascent National Health Service.

What do you have to say for yourself?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s