Book review: Crooked Talk by Jonathon Green
Michael Bywater finds that Jonathon Green is the aceman of lexicographers, and that's no honey-fuggle
Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime by Jonathon Green (Randsom House)
Old lexicographers never die; they just become Adj. (arch.) The same fate, though faster, befalls slang. Nowhere does the Vicar Principle – guitars in the sanctuary, slightly dated slang and “Don’t call me Vicar; call me Ken”, invariably giving the impression of being catastrophically gawky and behind the curve, like middle managers dancing – apply more remorselessly than to the middle-aged politician who deploys last year’s (month’s, week’s) slang to show he’s down wit da yoof. The businessman or politico persuaded by his PR to speak of “off-the-wall cool, guys” in turn only persuades his audience that he’s probably a cog-foist trying a honey-fuggle or a trugmalion hawking his mutton. Instead of thinking he’s honest, cool and in-touch, we instinctively brand him as a gloak, up to the high-toby spice.
But does slang, once it becomes arch., loose its meaning altogether? If, as well one might, an MP were to stand up in the Commons and accuse David Cameron of being merely aceman of the bopping-club, or Clegg as his diddly-bop, and that they ought to be yoked, cooled with a four-pounder or, at least, snaked, sent for a whiddle and given the garter ... would there be accusations from the Speaker of unparliamentary language? Would a footballer about to be exposed as Joe Blakeing the Bartelmy simply knuckle or try for a super-injunction against whoever gave him the cross-hop?
It’s a tricky one. The law of defamation is aimed at utterances likely to bring their target into the hatred, ridicule or contempt of the mind of a reasonable man. If I were to accuse Fred the Shred or the directors of Blackstone private equity group (the ones who sold off the properties of Southern Cross care homes) or David Willetts of running the badger game, would that be a libel? Not unless I told you what it meant, because the reasonable man of the early 21st century wouldn’t have a clue.
Legal and social niceties apart, slang is, like all language, though in a more concentrated form, a two-way street. It emerges from the societies in which it’s used, but also plays back into them. Slang shines a light into the very shadows which it exists to cast – nowhere more so than in the last half-millennium of criminal slang covered, with his usual comprehensive brilliance, by Jonathon Green, the indefatigable lexicographer of the marginal, the deviant and the just plain dodgy. (Turns out he’s a mere 60. Maybe he writes to the sound of sleighbells; whatever he’s on, I want some. Unless it’s just pure diligence, in which case I pass.)
I couldn’t recommend Crooked Talk to those fascinated by the complexities of language, or to sociologists of deviance, or criminologists, or even to simple lexerasts. Instead, I’d recommend it to anyone who uses language or is interested in his fellow human-beings. Odd to find a book on words as gripping as any novel, but there it is, not least in the way the whole prosody of slang has changed, from the rather baroque polysyllabic style of Victorian cant and backslang to the chopped-up contemporary street talk, modelled on a “hood jive which no urban black person evvah used, innit?”, and on an inversion of meaning theoretically impenetrable to old, straight, boring people like us. Slang exists to hide behind. Green lifts the curtain. The scene revealed is quite fascinating. Buy it or the darkmans budge will come in the night.
Aceman chief criminal in a gang
Badger game oh come on, you don’t think I’m going to say that here, do you?
Bopping-club a criminal gang
Cog-foist a cheat
Cross-hop, to give to inform upon
Darkmans budge one who climbs through the window and opens the door to the other thieves
Diddly-bop low-ranked gang member
Garter indefinite prison sentence
Gloak highway robber; footpad
Hawk your mutton to prostitute yourself
High-toby spice highway robbery
Honey-fuggle to swindle or deceive
Joe Blake the Bartelmy visit a brothel
Knuckle to give up, throw in one’s hand
Sleighbells dealer in, or possessor of, cocaine
Trugmalion a prostitute
Whiddle a trial
Yoke to garrotte