account of the back slang - The Slang Dictionary


The costermongers of London number between thirty and forty thousand. Like other low tribes, they boast a language, or secret tongue, by which they hide their designs, movements, and other private affairs. This costers’ speech offers no new fact, or approach to a fact, for philologists; it is not very remarkable for originality of construction, neither is it spiced with low humour, as other cant. But the costermongers boast that it is known only to themselves; that it is far beyond the Irish, and puzzles the Jews. This is, however, but a poor fiction; for, as will be seen, the slang current among them is of the crudest conception, and only difficult to the most ignorant. Any one of the smallest pretensions to ability could learn back slang—could, in fact, create it for himself—as far as the costers’ vocabulary extends, in a couple of hours. Since the early editions of this work were published back slang has become very common; and is now mostly spoken, mixed however, with various other kinds of slang, in the public markets—the new dead-meat market being, perhaps, strongest in the way of pure—if the term may be used—back slang.

The main principle of this language is spelling the words backwards—or rather, pronouncing them rudely backwards. Sometimes, for the sake of harmony, an extra syllable is prefixed or annexed; and occasionally the word receives quite a different turn, in rendering it backwards, from what an uninitiated person would have expected. One coster told Mayhew that he often[348] gave the end of a word “a new turn, just as if he chorused it with a tol-de-rol.” But then costermongers, and more especially those who confided their joys and sorrows to the gentleman just named, are not to be relied on. The coster has, of course, his own idea of the proper way of spelling words, and is not to be convinced but by an overwhelming show of learning,—and frequently not then, for he is a very headstrong fellow. By the time a coster has spelt an ordinary word of two or three syllables in the proper way, and then spelt it backwards, it has become a tangled knot that no etymologist could unravel. The word “generalize,” for instance, is considered to be “shilling” spelt backwards, while “genitraf” is supposed to represent farthing. Sometimes slang and cant words are introduced, and even these, when imagined to be tolerably well known, are pronounced backwards. Very often, instead of a word being spelt backwards right through, the syllables retain their original order; the initial h is pronounced as though c were before it, “tatch” being back slang for hat, and “flatch” the word supposed to represent half. Again, the full words are shortened, as “gen” for “generalize,” a shilling; and various other artifices are resorted to, in the hope of adding to the natural difficulties of back slang.

This back language, back slang, or “kacab genals,” as it is called by the costermongers themselves, is supposed to be regarded by the rising generation of street-sellers as a distinct and regular mode of intercommunication. People who hear this slang for the first time never refer words, by inverting them, to their originals; and the “yanneps,” “esclops,” and “nammows,” are looked upon as secret terms. Those who practise the slang soon obtain a considerable stock vocabulary, so that they converse rather from the memory than the understanding. Amongst the senior costermongers, and those who pride themselves on their proficiency in back slang, a conversation is[349] often sustained for a whole evening—that is, the chief words are in the back slang—especially if any “flats” are present whom they wish to astonish or confuse.

The addition of an s invariably forms the plural, so that this is another source of complication. For instance, woman in the back slang is “nammow,” and “nammows” is “women.” The explorer, then, in undoing the back slang, and turning the word once more into English, would have a novel and very extraordinary rendering of women. Where a word is refractory in submitting to a back rendering, as in the case of “pound,” letters are made to change positions for the sake of harmony; thus we have “dunop,” a pound, instead of “dnuop,” which nobody could pleasantly pronounce. Also all words of one syllable which end with two consonants—such, for instance, as cold, drunk—become dissyllables when read backwards, the vowel e being imagined between the then first and second consonants, as “deloc,” “kennurd.” Others take the vowel as an initial, girl being pronounced “elrig.” This arrangement, as a modification to suit circumstances, may remind the reader of the Jews’ “Old clo’! old clo’!” instead of “Old clothes! old clothes!” which it is supposed would tire the patience of even a Jew to repeat all day.

The back slang has been in vogue for many years. It is, as before stated, very easily acquired, and is principally used by the costermongers and others who practise it (as the specimen Glossary will show) for communicating the secrets of their street tradings, the cost of and profit on goods, and for keeping their natural enemies, the police, in the dark. “Cool the esclop” (look at the police) is often said among them, when one of the constabulary makes his appearance. It is only fair to assume, however, that the police know as much or more about the back slang than do the costers; and every child in a “shy” neighbourhood knows the meaning of the phrase just[350] quoted. Those who regard the London costermonger as a fearful being are very much mistaken,—he is singularly simple-minded and innocent, and has, indeed, very little to conceal; but he certainly does like to wrap himself up as in a garment of mystery, and sometimes believes that the few words of slang he knows, mixed as they are, and troublesome as they have been to him, form an impenetrable barrier between him and the rest of the world. He is fond of exhibiting what knowledge he possesses, and so talks slang in public much more than in private; but at most the slang words used bear not forty per cent. proportion to the rest of his conversational structure, even when he exerts himself to the uttermost limits of his ability and education, and even when he is a leader in his walk of life.

Perhaps on no subject is the costermonger so silent as on his money affairs. All costs and profits, he thinks, should be kept profoundly secret. The back slang, therefore, gives the various small amounts very minutely, but, as has been before remarked, these words are known wherever common folk most do congregate, and are peculiar only for their variations from the original in the way of pronunciation:—

Flatch, halfpenny.

Yannep, penny.

Owt-yanneps, twopence.

Erth-yanneps, threepence.

Roaf-yanneps, fourpence.

Evif, or ewif-yanneps, fivepence.

Exis-yanneps, sixpence.

Nevis-yanneps, sevenpence.

Teaich, or theg-yanneps, eightpence.

Enin-yanneps, ninepence.

Net-yanneps, tenpence.

Nevelé-yanneps, elevenpence.

Evlénet-yanneps, twelvepence.

Generalize, one shilling.

Yannep-flatch, three-halfpence.

[351]Owt-yannep-flatch, twopence-halfpenny. The word “flatch” represents the odd halfpenny when added to any number of “yanneps.”

Gen, or eno-gen, one shilling. “Gen” is a contraction of “generalize.”

Owt-gens, two shillings.

Erth-gens, three shillings.

The “gens” continue in the same sequence as the “yanneps” above; but, as a rule, the s is left out, and “owt” or “erth gen” represents the quantity. This is, however, matter of individual taste; and any reader who is anxious to become proficient need not be afraid of committing a solecism—that’s a good word for back slanging—by giving vent to any peculiarity that may strike him. Variety is the charm of nature, we are told; and in this particular, if in no other, back slang and nature approach each other. So do extremes meet.

Yenork, a crown piece, or five shillings.

Flatch-yenork, half-a-crown. This is generally slurred into “flatch-a-nock.” The crown in full rarely receives the title “yenork” nowadays,—it is usually a “wheel” or “evif gen.”

Flatch a dunop, ten shillings, i.e., half a pound.

Beyond this amount the slangist reckons after an intricate and complicated mode. Fifteen shillings would be “erth-evif-gen,” or, literally, three times 5s.; seventeen and sixpence would be “erth-yenork-flatch,” or three crowns and a half; or, by another mode of reckoning, “erth-evif-gen flatch-yenork,” i.e., three times 5s., and half-a-crown.

Dunop, a pound. Varied by “Dick,” back slang for “quid.”

Further than which the costermonger seldom goes in money reckoning.

In the following Glossary only those words are given which are continually used,—the terms connected with street traffic, the names of the different coins, vegetables, fruit, and fish, technicalities of police courts, &c. The reader might naturally think that a system of speech so simple as the back slang would require no Glossary; but he will quickly perceive, from[352] the specimens given, that a great many words in frequent use in a “back” sense, have become so twisted as to require a little glossarial explanation.

This kind of slang, formed by reversing and transposing the letters of a word, is not peculiar to the London costermongers. Instances of an exactly similar secret dialect are found in the Spanish “Germania” and French “Argot.” Thus:—

Spanish. Germania. English.

Plato. Taplo. Plate.

Demia. Media. Stockings.

French. Argot. English.

F’ol. Loffe. Foolish.

Lorcefe. La Force. La Force, the prison of that name.

The Bazeegars, a wandering tribe of jugglers in India, form a back slang, on the basis of the Hindustanee, in the following manner:—

Hindustanee. Bazeegar. English.

Ag. Ga. Fire.

Lamba. Balum. Long.

Dum. Mudu. Breath.