In the mid-1960s a middle-aged London lady tried to teach me back slang. It had been widely spoken, she said, among her school friends in the 1920s and '30s in what was then the old borough of St Pancras. At the time I assumed it was a kind of game for children, no longer played, and only later did I discover it was yet another Victorian invention which had lingered on well into the twentiethth century. An essay on back slang was first written for the Victorian Web in the summer of 2006. It was reprinted in the London Daily Mail, October 25th. From there it was picked up by BBC Radio 4. An interview on the subject was broadcast on the Word Of Mouth programme, January 8th, 2007. As a result of the feedback, and fresh research, enough new information came to light to warrant rewriting the original VW essay, which follows.
ost people who have even heard of back slang think of it as belonging to twentieth century London butchers, pockets of whom still speak it. It was, in fact, invented by costermongers — possibly even a costermonger — in the 1830s or '40s. The first reference to it is in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor in 1851. Eight years later John Hotten published the first back slang dictionary — A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words.
What is it? Well, everybody — in England at least — knows at least one word of it: yob. Boy backwards. Take an ordinary English word and say it backwards is the simple basic principle. Not all words, not even many (the vocabulary was always very small) and mainly verbs, nouns, cardinal numbers, and the occasional adjective.
Occabot, to give an example, is tobacco backwards, tib is bit, and vatch was have (we'll come back to why in a moment). So the sentence 'have you a bit of tobacco?' would be 'vatch you a tib of occabot?' But, of course, not many words lend themselves to being reversed so easily and it does seem as if somebody, somewhere, sat down, thought it through, and came up with a few serviceable rules. One of the most striking things about back slang is how much it relies on the written language. How a word is spelt matters more than how it sounds. Since most costermongers were illiterate at the time does this suggest a single more educated mind at work?
Take talk, as an example; you can reverse it with no trouble at all — it comes out as 'caught'. But the costers (or coster) went for the written word and it became klat. Knife, too, has a complicated spelling though, again, the spoken language allows it to be reversed (fine) quite easily. But the inventor chose to turn the whole written word around: efink. Similarly with half. We don't pronounce the 'l'. But when they reversed it, the costers did. More interestingly, you can't pronounce an aitch at the end of a word — so they turned that into 'tch'. Half then became flatch. Likewise, have became vatch. Hot was totch, hat — tatch, horse — esrotch, head — dee-aitch (Ironically, being cockneys, they never of course pronounced aitch at the beginning of a word any way.)
'Th' can't be pronounced backwards either; sensibly they kept it the right way round. Thus three became earth. 'Sh' is equally irreversible, and the same solution applied. Fish became shif. (But shoes became see-o. Perhaps because house was already soosh.) Other difficult combinations such as 'qu' were also side stepped: quart, for instance, became track or trag.
Most English-speakers, except in the north of England, use diphthongs rather than pure vowels and diphthongs are also impossible to say backwards. They were replaced by other, similar, sounds: the first diphthong in trousers ('ou'), for example, was turned into 'wo': reswort. House, as we've already seen, was soosh. Others are difficult to reverse because of the surrounding consonants. Week thus became kew. The phrase 'there are seven days in a week' was expressed as 'there are nevis yads in a kew.' Interesting because day can be reversed (aid) but once again the spelling was chosen over the sound. A palindrome like nine could have been a problem, too: the inventor solved it by articulating the final silent 'e' and shortening the 'i' - enin. Many words made use of that final unspoken 'e'. Apple was elppa. Table was elbat. Sometimes they added an 'e' where there isn't one — so girl became elrig. And so with words like penny — run it backwards and add an extra 'e' and you get yennep. The plural was always made with an 's' — thrupence (three old pennies) then became earth yenneps. Likewise, woman became namow or namer — and women in the plural, namers.
Sometimes my theory breaks down. According to the rules best should be steb. It is, in fact, zeb. If there were a mastermind, clearly he didn't invent every thing. In 1849 Mayhew met a coster who boasted he was consciously inventing and adding new words to the vocabulary. Zeb probably reflects the famous London glottal stop (where 't' is swallowed) of some later inventor.
Police became esclop or just slop, while policeman was nam-esclop. Look was cool. So 'look out a copper's coming' was 'cool slop' or 'cool him'. This kind of short hand was common. Good became doog (with a long oo as in loom) and one was eno; 'a good day's trading' was shortened to 'a good-eno', a good one. Or dab-eno, if trade had been slack.
Money was important. Nitraf (farthing), flatch (ha'penny), yennep (a penny). A shilling was gen Š-short they said for generalise which they argued was shilling spelt backwards. (Does that invalidate my theory? Perhaps not: I suspect it isn't back slang at all, particularly as the costermongers' word for sovereign (the coin) was couter, which clearly isn't.) Flatch yenork is back slang and means half a crown. A pound was dunop, both the weight and money. 'Do you have half a pound of apples' was rendered 'vatch you a flatch dunop of elppas?' Numbers had an equally high priority: eno, oat, earth, roaf, evif, exis, nevis, theg (for eight: this time they reversed 'ht' to 'th'), enin, net, nevel¸, and evlenet. Beyond this we find a few anomalies. Fifteen was earth-evif (three times five), but eighteen was net theg (ten plus eight), while sixteen was more simply neet-exis. (Sometimes Hotten's accuracy is doubtful; seventeen shillings, he tells us, was earth-yenork-flatch — that is three crowns and a half. But a crown was five shillings; three and a half of them, therefore, add up to seventeen and sixpence (17/6d)).
Fruit and veg, of course, had to be named: potatoes — ruttats (Victorian Cockneys always called them taters.) parsnips — spinsrap, pears — rapes, nuts — stuns, cabbage — edgabac, greens — neergs, carrots — storracs, cherries — sir-etch.
Costers were Cockneys of course and spoke with London accents. There is at least one word where you can hear it; rain, which rhymes with line, was nire. (Compare Eliza Dolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion and My Fair Lady — the rain in Spain stay mainly in the plain).
Butchers had picked up back slang at least by the end of the century while costers seem to have been forgetting it. Throughout the twentieth century is was entirely a butcher's language. At first secrecy was one of the main attractions for them at a time when there were no sell-by dates or price tags. Using back slang, the butcher and his assistant could agree between them how much they could get away with when it came to charging individual customers. (Hotten said costers used it for the same purpose in the 1840 and '50s, but since each was a one-man band working alone it seems unlikely.) A correspondent emailed with a real example from a butcher's shop in Penge, in south London, just before the Great War. The butcher particularly disliked a certain customer; when he saw her coming he'd call to his assistant: 'tuck the dillo woc a tib of dillo woc' — 'cut the old cow a bit of old cow'. Butchers never were polite: nowadays they use back slang for talking about young women waiting in line to be served.
Back slang, then, has been in continuous use for 160 or 170 years and we can expect it to have evolved. Some was based on what is now obsolete slang. Birk, for example, was another word for house. It is crib backwards. Crib is still in use but not, I think, with meaning of hut or hovel (as the OED defines it). Yob or yobbo is now wholly derogatory, meaning a violent youth with criminal tendencies. To the Victorian it just meant boy, any boy. It's also unclear if the costermonger originator(s) had words for meat. To butchers, of course, they are essential: pork — kayrop, lamb — bemal. (Sausages are swags. How did they arrive at that?)
We don't know exactly how the Victorians pronounced all these words. Today tenip (pint) is pronounced teenip, enin is eenin. Perhaps they always were. Neither Mayhew nor Hotten spelled words phonetically but there may be one small clue: taters (potatoes) is rendered rutats, indicating the indeterminate final 'e' is retained when the word is reversed. It doesn't help much except to suggest he was aware of it and might have spelled tenip with a double 'e' if that was the way it was said. On the other hand, trousers is reswort and somehow it feels more comfortable to say ree-swort with a long 'e'. Some pronunciation we know has changed. Three is now erf, reflecting the way some Londoners substitute 'f' for 'th' — as free for three, fink for think. Theg for eight seems to have dropped out. It is now tee-aitch, though that was also a variant open to the costermongers.
Finally, some words are just inexplicable oddities: nosrap was parson, but Mayhew tells us that most costers didn't know the meaning of Christianity or its teachings, and that fewer than three percent ever went inside a church. Why, then, did they need a secret word for a vicar they never saw or had anything to do with? And why would they want a special word for the moon (noom)? How often did that come up in daily conversation? 'Cool the nosrap in the noom-light?' Can we buy that? On is no, say is yes.
- "Weeping Willow" stands for "Pillow": Victorian Rhyming Slang
- Victorian Back Slang — a Glossary
- The Meanings of Posh
- Then and Now: Posh, Toff, and the Victorians
Hotten, John Camden, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words. 2nd Edition. London, 1860.
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. Vol 1. Londoon, 1851.
Last modified 23 January 2007