Words Cathi Unsworth
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“Cant – thieves’ slang – is the oldest slang we have, and Soho in the past was never short of characters who were living on the far side of the law…”
Soho and its environs, with its hostelries, clubs, ‘vaulting academies’ and nefarious street trades, can be credited as one of the greatest sources of slang. Through its ‘rookeries’, teeming with ‘jades’, ‘footpads’ and ‘mollies’, once strolled a venerable gentleman named Captain Francis Grose. Despite the dangers around him, the Captain was on a mission – to compile a dictionary of the cant of criminals that would arm the unwary with a guide against being fleeced. His resultant Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1785, is the inspiration for Max Décharné’s wonderful new book, Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang.
Pictured in the frontispiece, the Captain (1731-1791) appears an avuncular cove, whose impressive girth would preclude sudden flight from menace. Which is what makes his achievement all the more impressive to the svelte and dapper Décharné, an author whose previous work includes Straight From The Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang, and a musician who fronts the cinematically noir Flaming Stars. “An artist, antiquary, ex-military man, and most of all, the kind of man you’d want to prop up a bar with, he spent many a late night on the wilder shores – and he didn’t need the protection of a detachment of soldiers, unlike Dickens half a century later,” Max says with a smile. “Two thirds of the world’s trade was coming through the Port of London in his day, and Covent Garden and Soho specialised in parting all those sailors from their money. Imagine the language that accompanied that!”
The result of years of research, Vulgar Tongues has its roots in Soho and the area’s proximity to those two pillars of justice, The Old Bailey – in Grose’s day, Newgate Prison – and Tyburn Tree. “Cant – thieves’ slang – is the oldest slang we have, and Soho in the past was never short of characters who were living on the far side of the law. If you hung around the late-night hostelries, this would have been a large part of the way that people talked.”
Max’s evident delight in his material stems in part from how many of these phrases have survived. “It’s incredible how 17th and 18th century London slang has spread around the world,” he says. “They were already calling a stomach your ‘bread basket’ and illicit brandy was known as ‘moonshine,’ because it was smuggled by night. My favourites are ‘fly’, (knowing, aware), which rappers are still using, and ‘shag’, which then, as now, was a slang term for a bout of horizontal athletics.”
Another form associated with Soho is Polari, the secret language of homosexuals. “It started out as showmen’s and carnival slang, with no particular gay focus,” says Max. “The Punch & Judy men in Covent Garden are quoted using it in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour & The London Poor (1851), but it only starts to be closely associated with the gay scene after World War II. Indeed, the majority of gay slang of any kind dates from after 1900, though gay men referred to each other as ‘mollies’ in the early 18th century. The high point of Polari was undoubtedly the 1960s, thanks to Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick’s radio characters Julian and Sandy and the final legalisation of homosexuality towards the end of their run in 1967.”
Kenneth Williams was a good source – “All his diaries should be required reading,” Max considers – as was another Soho face, Derek Raymond, who augmented his debut 1962 novel, The Crust On It’s Uppers, with a glossary of slang. Interestingly, some of his terms – ‘screwing’ and ‘having it off’ – had a different meaning only a few decades previously, while ‘charvering’ meant the same. “In that other fine London novel, James Curtis’s The Gilt Kid (1936), ‘having it off’ was pulling a robbery, and ‘screwing’ specifically meant burglary,” Max explains. “‘Charvering’ (having sex), however, goes back at least as far as the classic Victorian The Swell’s Night Guide (1846).”
And what of today’s Soho – will it go on providing new expressions that will be heard centuries from now? Or will it all be buried under concrete? “Very hard to say. There’s still a hell of a lot of life in Soho, but it’s heart-breaking to see how the local authorities are allowing significant sections to be bulldozed and redeveloped. Whoever’s signing off on these deals should be made to ride a foal sired by an acorn – and yes, that’s some more slang that 18th century Soho residents would have known. To give you a clue, the way to take such a ride was down the western end of Oxford Street, when pushed off a cart at Tyburn by the hangman, Jack Ketch.”
Max Décharné’s Vulgar Tongues is published by Serpent’s Tail, as is Derek Raymond’s The Crust on its Uppers. James Curtis’ The Gilt Kid is published by London Books.