Posted by Gary Martin on February 17, 2005
In Reply to: Scarper posted by Robert Benoist on February 17, 2005
: It is interesting to see that the origin of "Scarper" meaning "to go" is still shown as cockney rhyming slang following "Scapa Flow".
: Scapa Flow was a Royal Naval base established in the 20th Century and famous for the scuttling of the German fleet in 1919 and a subsequent WW2 battle. Before 1919 it is doubtful whether anyone in the country let alone cockneys would have heard of it.
: In Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (vol 3 1851) there is a chapter on "Punch Talk" (basically the slang language used by travelling Italian Punch and Judy men and entertainers). This slang contains both English,Italian, jewish and traveller roots. In Punch Talk "To get away quickly" e.g. from the police or authority is spoken and written as scarper. This comes from the Italian (E)scappare. "Punch Talk" is an important source of modern slang and was in part the basis for polari.
: It is probable that after 1919 it was imagined that the word had originated in the rhyming slang after Scapa Flow but I think the evidence firmly points to its Italian Origins. Some encyclopedias follow this argument without citing the use of the expression prior to 1851 in Mayhew. Mayhew's complete London Labour and London Poor can be found at Perseus Digital Library at the Tuft's University web site.
That's interesting, and you do appear to be correct in saying the word pre-dates the Scapa Flow association. It is possible that the 'scapa' rhyming slang began prior to 1919, but it seems unlikely.
I can't find the Mayhew's work at the references you gave, but the OED has an earlier quotation, which implies the same meaning:
1846 Swell's Night Guide 43 He must hook it before 'day~light does appear', and then scarper by the back door.
The word no doubt increased in use due to the neat rhyming slang but the word is probably Italian/Polari in origin. The phrase 'to scarper the letty', while hardly in everyday use, does exist. Letty is Polari for bed or lodgings.
I'll update the entry on this site to reflect all that.