Susie Dent is one of the UK’s best-known word experts. In her new book she explores the fascinating alien codes and colourful slang spoken for centuries.

The word ‘eavesdropper’ originally referred to people who, under the pretence of taking in some fresh air, would stand under the ‘eavesdrip’ of their house – from which the collected raindrops would fall – in the hopes of catching any juicy tid-bits of information that might come their way from their neighbour’s property.

According to my parents, I’ve always liked to tune into the conversations of others. But rather than hope for a snippet of salacious gossip, it has always been the words themselves that I wanted to understand. I would duly write such overhearings down, poring over them later in an attempt to crack these alien grown-up codes. It was the start of a lifelong passion. I’ve gone through a lot of notebooks since then and somehow, I became a professional word detective. 

What I’ve discovered is that from football fans to undertakers, secret agents to marble-players and politicians, we all are part of at least one tribe. By tribes, I’m talking anthropologically; these groups are determined less by genes and more by the work they do or the passions they pursue. As I explore in my new book Dent’s Modern Tribes, the best way to understand each particular tribe is to get to the bottom of what they are saying, and why.

'Unblocking the blocker'

Tribe talk has been with us for centuries. The earliest dictionaries were collections of criminal slang, swapped amongst ne’er-do-wells as a means of evading the authorities or indeed any outsider who might threaten the trade. It was also clearly a joyous kind of banter. A century or more ago, when two highwaymen came across each other in the black of night, each would whisper ‘the music’s paid’ to signal that they each plied the same trade, and that on no account should they be delayed on their journey to ‘pull up a jack’, ie stopping a coach.

 

The first tribe I belonged to myself was at school – the convent crowd. We used to call confession the ‘spilling test’, because (I imagine) it was behind the curtain that we spilled the beans. The severity of our weekly sins would of course be reflected in the amount of penance prayers the priest required of us, and so it was that an H3 wasn’t a type of lead pencil, but rather three Hail Marys for a mid-table misdemeanour (I don’t remember ever getting the full ‘Rosie-Lee’ (rosary): which was awarded for the biggest transgressions).

Since then, I’ve joined numerous other communities, each of which has its own, distinctly flavoured jargon. And, like every one of us, I’ve become adept at code swapping between them according to whom I’m with. Just as some of us might switch to talking about being ‘nesh’ instead of cold the moment we step back home, so I might confide to a fellow cyclist that I ‘bonked’ on my last ride – in other words, I hit the wall through lack of fuel in a memorable (and very unpleasant) way.

Of course, talk of bonking might be spectacularly misunderstood by any non-cyclist, in the same way as any outsider hearing a ‘twitcher’ or birder despair about being gripped off, or celebrating unblocking the blocker, might break their mental stride. But all of these terms shine slivers of light into the mindsets of their respective tribe. In the case of the birder, you will learn about the deep frustration of missing out on an extremely elusive bird (aka a ‘crippler’) that others have somehow managed to spot. (‘Unblocking the blocker’, on the other hand, is finally adding a tick to your life list by spotting the ‘megacrippler’ that’s escaped you for years).

‘She’s looking hot on the floor’

There were all kinds of happy surprises in my research for the book. Take builders, whose colourful banter brightens both their day and that of anyone who overhears them. From them I learned that ‘a snotter’ is anything stuck to paint or plaster that shouldn’t be, that ‘spreading the fat on Lionel Richie’s dance floor’ is plastering the ceiling, and that footballer Gary Neville gets a frequent look-in whenever a builder requires a spirit level (aka a ‘bubble’).

Trainspotters were fun too, and the demographic is getting both younger and female. From a group of young spotters who could have passed for hipsters at a media conference, I learned the lexicon for train ‘types’, starting with the ‘normal’ (total non-enthusiast), and ending with ‘trackbashers’, the most dedicated spotters of all (I reckon I’m a ‘bert’, aka your average traveller, intent only on getting from A to B).

And there’s far more to cabbies than ‘the Knowledge’, the required in-depth study of London street routes. A life on the ‘hickory’ (dickory dock, ie clock or meter) has resulted in a vocabulary as entertaining as the drivers who trade in it. Their passengers or ‘Billy Bunters’ (punters) range from the ‘cock’ and ‘hen’ (male and female) to ‘the single pin’ (a lone passenger) and ‘golden roader’ (one on a long journey, and hence a dream ticket). Amongst cabbies, even the landmarks of London have been renamed. The 'Gasworks' (Houses of Parliament), the 'Scent Box' (the rank at King’s Cross), and the 'Tripe Shop' (Broadcasting House) are thrown around as freely as talk of the evil ‘bilker’, ie the passenger who runs off without paying.

Equally established is the banter of footballers, pundits, and of course managers. Amongst the fans and the commentators, football offers a unique kind of language in which ‘quality’ and ‘class’ are the adjectives of choice, ‘y’knows’ are sprinkled around liberally, and ‘like I say’ has more caps than Steven Gerrard, even when whatever is being referred to has never actually been said in the first place. All in all, ‘you couldn’t make it up’.

In the same exchange you might overhear a policewoman talk about doing an ‘obbo’ on a ‘twoccer’

In all of these groups, tribal conversations offer a means of uniting their members as well as a quick and easy shorthand. But there are of course other communities whose codes are just that: designed not to be cracked and essential for secrecy. These are the terms shared only by the initiated, and that are expressly designed to keep outsiders firmly at bay.

Take the Freemasons, whose language is steeped in a rich, resonant biblical vocabulary that is entirely in keeping with their rites of initiation, and yet somehow at odds with their desire to open themselves up to the public gaze. Or the military, for whom operational codes are literal deciders of life and death.

Many of these secret languages straddle both worlds, providing affirming banter for the team as well as ciphers for work on the ground. In the same exchange you might overhear a policewoman talk about doing an ‘obbo’ on a ‘twoccer’ (observing a car-thief, who ‘takes without consent’), while her partner-in-fighting-crime may be lamenting the quality of the ‘job roll’ in the ‘nick’ (that’s the station’s toilet paper, notoriously as rough as the criminals they’ve locked up).

These are just a few of my favourite linguistic footprints that I’ve tracked and recorded. There are others of course from my own tribes – like the lexicographer’s ‘eggcorn’ (which describes how linguistic misunderstandings become expressions in their own right, as in ‘let’s cut to the cheese’) and why a cameraman’s comment ‘she’s looking hot on the floor’ is not exactly a compliment (translation: the presenter is looking a bit shiny on set).

We are all surrounded by amazing secret languages, full of history and stories and in-jokes. And one thing is certain: our tribal conversations will never run out. Like English itself, our group-talk is ever-evolving, and eavesdroppers like me can only run behind it in their wake. But follow I will – I still have lots of notebooks left to fill, and my life-list for megacripplers of the linguistic kind has only just begun.

Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain by Susie Dent is published by John Murray Publishers.

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