Posted by Robert Benoist on February 17, 2005
In Reply to: Polarised posted by Lewis 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.
: : You caught me (and dictionary.com) by surprise. Is "Polari" a Traveller language? Are there many words of Polari origin? I confess to having never heard the word.
: Polari is explained in some books kicking around - Amazon stock them. to be brief, it is a slang used in the entertainment industry and has a mix of origins - some words do come from itinerant entertainers such as fairs and circuses, but there is also back-slang - for example 'riah' is 'hair'.
: From what I understand, it was common use in theatres where it was used to talk in front of the managers etc who often did not come from the backstage background would not understand it. It became popular in 'camp' circles too - as it allowed semi-secret communication, which in the days of homosexuals being persecuted, added an extra degree of safety.
: It got popularised by the 'resting' entertainers Julian and Sandy (Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick) in sketches mainly written by Barry Cryer/Marty Feldmann in the 1960s radio comedy "Round the Horne" starring the eponymous gent, who would visit various businesses each week only to find they were new ventures by J&S.
: Each sketch would open with "hello, I'm Julian, this is my friend Sandy" "Oh Mr Horne, how bona (good) to vada (see) your dolly (pretty) old eke (face)"
: each sketch almost always included the exclamation "Isn't he bold!?" when a double entendre by KH might otherwise have passed unnoticed.
: it was outrageously camp and very funny stuff - quite ground-breaking for homosexuality - still illegal at the beginning of broadcasting - to be portra yed in a kindly light.
: Julian and Sandy probably paved the way for the Mr Humphries character in "Are you being served?" a handful of years later - also by the BBC.
: So bold! Lewis
development of Polari as the language of the "underbelly of society" is said to have started in the East End of London in the late 19th early 20th century when italian, jewish and other itinerants settled. The "slang" was a secret method of communication especially in markets and when dealing with criminal enterprises. From the east end it spread to the West of London where it was used again in the markets. In the 40's and 50's the slang was taken up by the underground gay community adding words which were generic to them. For example the polari for Man is Omi for a woman polone. Thus "Omipolone" or manwoman becomes slang for an effeminate man. Words such as naff which have entered the language are also of Polari origin. Naff, now used for anything shoddy or no good, is from the capitalised not available for [f-word]ing. Similarly the word camp is a corruption of Kamp - known as a male prostitute. A derogative term for someone behaving in a particularly outrageous way. The study of Polari has been the subject of Ph.D theses in the UK.
Some Julian and Sandy scripts from their sketches on Round the Horne are available on the internet.
As far as the use of scarper in the mid 20th century is concerned the "adoption" of it as rhyming slang for scapa flow doesn't affect origins of the word. Another case of theft!