Tag Archives: London language

London Lingo

Londoners love a nickname it’s what sets them apart from other cities’ occupants and the cohesion that draws them together.

Recently we have started giving a moniker to many of London’s tallest and iconic built structures: The Shard, Cheesegrater,
Helter Skelter, Razor, Glass Testicle and
Walkie-Talkie.

Here is a list of some uniquely London words with CabbieBlog’s definitions:

Ken: London’s ex-Mayor with socialist tendencies left of Lenin.

South Ken: Not Ken’s antipodeans’ cousin but an area of West London populated by the French.

Boris: Ken’s nemesis. Current Mayor of London, with the carefully created persona of a bumbling tousled haired fool. Aspirations to be next Prime Minister. Boris is also a generic term for anything new in London (see below).

Boris bikes: A means to experience firsthand the cut and thrust of London’s heavy traffic at very modest prices.

Boris bus: A green replacement for the much loved Routemaster developed at a cost of only 10 times the original.

Boris buoys: Capsules for earnest fools so they may be suspended by overhead wires above the Royal Victoria Dock while watching planes from City Airport fly directly towards them.

Offy: A corner shop where wine and spirits of dubious origin may be purchased illegally out of hours.

Scab cab: A wart on London’s excellent taxi service.

Tube: A public service used to transport over 4 million daily subterranially at temperatures in excess of those permitted by the EU for animals.

The Knowledge: A lifestyle choice whereby prospective cabbies can give up on normal living for 4 years.

Standard: The survivor (helped by Russian money) from the original three evening newspapers. The cry by vendors “Star, News, Standard” will not be heard again in the capital.

The City: Most large inhabited conurbations are called cities. In London a square mile of virtually uninhabited real estate is called ‘The City’. It also accounts for 20 per cent of the Nation’s wealth.

Square Mile: See above, but with much of London, it isn’t square nor a mile in area, it’s just over.

Congestion Charge: An oxymoron. Neither reducing traffic flows nor charging when traffic increases.

Silicon Roundabout: London’s answer to the famous Valley without the sun or orange juice.

Bendy Buses: Ken’s solution to reduce congestion on London’s medieval narrow streets. They were 42ft long German juggernauts – it didn’t.

M25: An expensively built free car park encircling London.

Westway: An elevated car park with panoramic views across West London.

Mind the Gap: Recorded announcements reminding passengers of the pitfall for not looking down when alighting from a train. One actor wanted a royalty every time his voice was heard – he wasn’t employed.

Yuppie: The acronym that spawned a thousand others describing City workers.

The Palace: There are six palaces in London. Buck House, as it’s sometimes called, is the ugliest.

The Tower: Only the White Tower can be construed as a ‘tower’ the rest is just a medium sized castle.

A-Zed: The bible for the London geographer. Said to have been compiled single handed by Phyllis Pearsall walking 3,000 miles. A CrossRail tunnel boring machine has been named in her honour.

CrossRail: It does what it says on the tin. A rail running east to west across the capital. Its construction has produced some of the largest holes in Europe.

GMT: Greenwich Mean Time used universally as a measurement, well of time. Greenwich is the only place where one can straddle a brass strip denoting its position.

Cockney: Pronounced ‘Cok-nee’. Said to be a person born within sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. The cacophony of London’s traffic means you have to be born in the bell tower.

Bobby: London policemen, a nickname given as their founder was Robert Peel.

Home Counties: The area surrounding the M25 car park.

Up North: Anywhere north of Watford 35 miles from central London.

South of the River: Pronounced ‘Sarf’. A hinterland that cabbies traditionally avoid.

The River: There are numerous water courses in London, but only one ‘River’ once described as “Liquid History”.

Driving my droschky

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!

Is Cockney Rhyming Slang Really Dying

Or is Someone Telling Porkies? A survey by the Museum of London suggests that the use of Cockney rhyming slang, a tradition which originated with the market traders and street vendors of London’s East End in Victorian times, is dying out. As successive generations become attuned to different nuances of a constantly evolving language, it appears that Cockney rhyming slang has largely been superceded by the language of the internet.

[A]lthough immortalised in countless films, television programmes and written works it seems that Cockney rhyming slang, whilst still a recogniseable mode of speech, is no longer regularly spoken even by East End Londoners themselves.

What is Cockney rhyming slang?

Porters token

A token used by porters at Spitalfields

Cockney rhyming slang involves the substitution of a common word with an alternative phrase that, in part, rhymes with the original word. The non-rhyming part of the phrase is then uttered in place of the original word, leaving the listener to work out what the speaker is referring to. For example, in Cockney rhyming slang the word ‘telephone’ is substituted for the phrase ‘dog and bone’. In usage the phrase is shortened simply to ‘dog’. Therefore, in Cockney rhyming slang you might tell someone that you were going to telephone your wife by saying “I’m going to call my trouble on the dog”. (Trouble and strife = wife). Since a vast lexicon of Cockney rhyming slang phrases entered into common usage amongst East London’s tradesmen from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, conversations between those fluent in the language could be difficult to decipher by anyone not familiar with the practice. Opinions vary as to the purpose of Cockney rhyming slang; some believe that it enabled traders and criminals to discuss matters amongst themselves in a way that could not be understood by the casual listener, whilst others suggest that the adoption of a particular language register among a group of people acts as a means of strengthening and unifying the group. Or, it might simply have evolved to enable people to communicate more easily in the noisy environment of a crowded London marketplace.

The Evolution of Cockney Rhyming Slang

Porters badge

A market porter’s badge from Billingsgate

Although its original purpose may have been lost, the appeal of Cockney rhyming slang sustained its continuing use and adaptation until well into the twentieth century. In their depiction of characters from the East End of London, television shows such The Sweeney ( the title itself an example of rhyming slang for a unit of the Metropolitan police; ‘Sweeney Todd’ = ‘Flying Squad’), ‘Minder’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’ popularised Cockney rhyming slang, spreading its appeal to a national rather than regional audience and prompting the expansion of its vocabulary with contemporary additions. Perhaps the best known and most widely used modern example of a modern-day addition to Cockney rhyming slang is the phrase “It’s all gone a bit Pete Tong” whereby the famous dance DJ’s name popularly replaces the word ‘wrong’. Similarly, phrases such as ‘cream-crackered’ meaning ‘knackered’ (i.e. tired or worn out), ‘Barney Rubble’ for ‘trouble’ and ‘Hank Marvin’ for ‘starving’ have entered the public consciousness and remain in popular everyday use.

The Future of Cockney Rhyming Slang

The findings of the Museum of London’s investigation into the currency of Cockney rhyming slang reveal that many people still recognise phrases that have entered into the widest usage over the course of history, for example ‘apples and pears’ for ‘stairs’, ‘plates of meat’ for ‘feet’ and ‘pork pies’ or ‘porkie pies’ for ‘lies’ but that this recognition no longer extends to actual regular usage of Cockney rhyming slang in speech, even among Londoners. Whilst new phrases have been introduced in the last two decades (‘Britney Spears’ for ‘beers’ for example) many of these new additions have failed to capture the wider public’s imagination suggesting that in the longer term Cockney rhyming slang is losing its relevance for a contemporary and technologically literate generation. Sadly, it seems that where once we were having a ‘bubble bath’ (laugh), nowadays we’re content to LOL.

The Museum of London’s ‘Cockney Survey’ asked 2,000 Britons, including 1,000 from London, about their knowledge of both Cockney rhyming slang and the use of modern slang in conversation as well as their attitudes towards it.

John is a guest blogger from National London van hire.

PeteThis post has been shamefully pilfered from the Londoneer who rather magnanimously publish under a creative commons licence – Thanks Pete.

Guest Posts is a place for opinions and comment.
These opinions belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by CabbieBlog.

What’s in a name?

It is the Celts who probably named the Thames. It is thought by some to come from the Old English word ‘Temese’, meaning ‘to flow turbidly’. A simple name for a river full of detritus you might think, but it was probably the only waterway in the region that actually flowed, even if a little muddily. The river’s sinuous looping remains central to the idea of London and is frequently used on graphic devices representing the capital even the BBC’s Eastenders uses it on the titles.

[T]oday we Londoners refer to this lower stretch of England’s longest river as, well, ‘The River’ in the definite article as if it was the only river that existed, or at least the only one that mattered – which of course it is.

Ham comes from a bend in the shore, similar to ‘ham’ from the bend of the knee, a cut of meat from the thigh of the hind leg of certain animals, especially pig. Hampton gets its name from a pig’s anatomy.

At times it has erroneously been given a male gender and nicknamed Old Father Thames a kind of post-modern quasi-tutelary deity when in reality at times it has flooded and rather than protected Londoners has taken lives.

Over time most goods that entered London came via The River, so landing places were crucial. In Old English the word for a landing place was hythe, some locations on The River’s foreshore still bear this out: Rotherhithe or cattle harbour from which cattle may have been shipped across The River for the market at Smithfield. Greenhithe and Bablock Hythe in Oxfordshire are also locations of mediaeval docks.

Lambs were landed just west of Westminster – you could say today politicians act like a flock of sheep – but from that we get the corruption Lambeth.

Further upriver Chelsea was where chalk was landed and Putney (once Puttenhuthe, possibly where hawks were landed, but more probably named after a man who had hawk-like features).

Greenwich was first recorded in 964, its name derives from the Old English for a green trading place or harbour. At Shadwell its name is derived from a shallow spring or stream, not a shady well as some might think of the area.

Further downriver Woolwich unsurprisingly is named after a trading place for wool, while its neighbour Thamesmead sounds as if should be a bucolic place to enjoy a glass of mead. Thamesmead’s name in fact was the winning entry in a newspaper competition. The area’s topography of lakes and canals relieving the starkness of the built environment was once dubbed ‘the town of the 21st century. I doubt if many of its residents today would agree with that sentiment.

London Lexicon

The perception that most people have of London’s contribution to the English language is restricted to Cockney Rhyming Slang, in reality the only place you’re likely to hear rhyming slang these days is on the set of BBC TV’s Eastenders. But with a little research you discover that the derivation of many of our words and sayings in English sometimes come from a most unlikely quarter as I’ve discovered:

Derrick’s big idea
In the 18th century Ben Johnson – who incidentally was buried standing upright in Westminster Abbey – was sentenced to hanging for murder. The sentence was commuted to branding on his thumb when he proved that he could both read and write, and was thus given the Benefit of the Clergy.

Many weren’t so lucky and would meet Thomas Derrick at Tyburn; in fact Derrick was probably the last person they would meet here on Earth. London needed a hangman and as there hadn’t been many applicants, the Earl of Essex pardoned a rapist and rather unsavoury character by all accounts, on condition that he would fill the post.

Hanging Days were public holidays and as the condemned had been saved up for the purpose, it made the day for Derrick rather long and arduous, for the method of despatch at that time was slow strangulation having had the cart upon which they were standing pulled away from under their feet.

Derrick’s genius was to invent a gallows using ropes and pulleys that could despatch a dozen at the time; in fact it was this method that he used to hang the man who originally gave him his job, the Earl of Essex. The irony of this tale is that the Earl’s name has long been forgotten, while Derrick’s name is used to describe a modern derrick crane.

Quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson”
Sir John Robinson was Constable of the Tower of London who from 1660 until 1679 was in charge of executions and who by all accounts was a stickler for efficiency rather than solemnity. The prisoner was marched out, put on the block and shortened without any opportunity for any famous last words. He did not even have the time to appeal to the overseer by crying “Jack Robinson”.

Being at Sixes and Sevens
Only in London would you find an institution dedicated to the making of clothes, which for over 300 years have had nothing to do with tailoring instead its members devote their time to personal networking and charitable works, for like most of London’s guilds the Merchant Tailors are now run by the men in grey suits. Merchant Tailors who were later joined by the Linen Armourers, originally actually made clothes, its most famous being the gambeson, a thick padded jacked worn under a suit of armour by the nobility or on its own by foot soldiers when going into battle. But when swords and pikes gave way to firearms this piece of apparel became redundant and they moved on to produce tents for the army, until even that became a pointless exercise.

Receiving its charter in 1327 it became as a result one of the 12 great livery companies in the City, so named for the distinctive clothing (or livery) that members of these venerable institutions would once wear. Early in their history the guilds fought for their place in the order of precedence during any progress of the Lord Mayor of London. After many years of arguments with the Guild of Skinners about who should take sixth place and who seventh in the order of precedence, the Lord Mayor issued an order in the late 15th century to the effect that the Skinners and Merchant Tailors would alternate in precedence; odd-numbered years Merchant Tailors would be sixth in order, while in even-numbered years Skinners would take sixth and Merchant Tailors seventh. Hence the phrase – to be at sixes and sevens. This alternating precedence continues to this day.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul
As Michael Caine might say not a lot of people know that Westminster Abbey’s official name is “The Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster”. During the reign of Edward VI after his father’s Reformation that ended Britain’s thousand-year monastic tradition and put power, and money, back into the hands of the Monarch, the churches were dependent on the largess of the reigning King. But St. Peter was forever asking for endowments so much so that the King decided to punish the abbey by taking away the revenue St. Peter had long enjoyed from the proceeds of the Manor of Paddington and gave them to St. Paul’s which had always been known, as nowadays, as London’s cathedral. Thus a Royal church had lost out to the London cathedral, and hence robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Break a Leg
If you want to wish an actor good luck with their performance theatrical tradition has it that you hope they “break a leg”. This curious phrase comes from a time when all London theatres had to have a licence which could only be granted by the Crown. Samuel Foote took over the running of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket but because its previous owner had published a number of pamphlets attacking the government and the Crown the King refused to grant a licence. Foote tried every means he could to curry favour with the King and in desperation found a loophole around the problem. The punters could get in for free but were expected to purchase food and drink at hugely inflated prices, a practice carried on today without the free admission.

The King’s brother the Duke of York overheard Foote boasting about his horsemanship and in revenue for making a fool of the Crown decided to seek revenge. The Duke of York challenged Foote to ride with him the following morning. The next day the Duke had brought with him a horse that had never been ridden, Foote inevitably was thrown from the horse and was badly injured, he broke a leg and had to have it amputated.

Stricken with remorse and wishing to make up for what he had done the Duke granted Foote the Royal licence for which he had waited for so long. In 1766 the Little Theatre became the Theatre Royal, Haymarket a title it has enjoyed ever since. The phrase “break a leg” is now used by the acting fraternity to wish one good luck, but maybe it should be “break a Foote”.