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Re: Little Britain

Posted by David FG on February 17, 2005

In Reply to: Little Britain 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 outrageo usly camp and very funny stuff - quite ground-breaking for homosexuality - still illegal at the beginning of broadcasting - to be portrayed in a kindly light.

: : : : : Julian and Sandy probably paved the way f or the Mr Humphries character in "Are you being served?" a handful of years later - also by the BBC.

: : : : : So bold! Lewis

: : : : The 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***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!

: : : how does polari differ from "thieves' cant"?

: : : the description of the origin appears similar, but later than I thought "cant" had been around.
: : : was it developed from cant rather than co-existed?

: : : FTR I am aware that "cant" means "talk" but the most common usage for it is as an abbreviation for that slang/argot used by criminals.

: : :
: : : L

: : Thieves cant was used extensively by those who considered themselves thieves. The vocabulary is almost exclusively english and uses everyday words and expressions to mean something different. The majority of the thieves cant vocabulary is restricted refer to some form of criminal activity or punishment. Few of these words now retain their thieves cant meaning but some have entered the language e.g. fence meaning a person disposing of stolen goods, a rat meaning someone who sneaks or reports someone to the police. Pop shop meaning a pawn shop is not as commonly used as it was say 50 years ago and whether children today know or are taught what "Pop goes the weasel" means I dont know. Polari does not seem to have acquired any vocabulary from Thieves Argot. This may be by reason of the development of Polari by immigrants who rarely mixed with the English thief (or more likely vice versa).

: : Both vocabularies seem to have served the same purpose as a communication of secret ideas but were mutually exclusive in their use. The polari vocabulary was much wider.
: : Time is also important. The vocabulary of Thieves Argot was first published in the very early 19th century and reflected a usage going back certainly to the 17th century of Gay's Beggar's Opera. Polari was developed in these shores from Punch Talk and other such immigrant slangs and did not develop as we know it until the early 20th century. By that time thieves cant itself was archaic. The occupations of highwayman - known as a highpad, and a common thief - known as a footpad had long been redundant following the introduction of proper roads, motor transport and street lightling! Given the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK the raison d'etre for polari has disappeared and it will not doubt lapse into obscurity leaving several words in the mainstream. There is still some exclusively gay usage of Polari - handbag - money, tro lling - looking for anonymous sexual partners, lallies - legs. If you watched Little Britain (2nd series)there is an occasion when Daffyd (the o nly gay in the village) is asked by the new gay hairdresser to "rest his lallies". That is a 2005 BBC1 usage!

: that explanation helps distinguish.

: I had noticed that when Daffyd went to the hairdresser, the word "lallies" came up, because prior to that I had only heard it in "Round the Horne".

: I would like to suggest that the language used by career criminals has simply developed further, rather than become archaic. modern crime still has words that don't quickly enter the main-stream - peter-men & jelly-men are not particularly well-known words for safe-breakers ('peter' coming from saltpetre an ingredient of gunpowder and 'jelly' being plastic explosives).
: there are quite a few words used in confidence-trickery or street-crime to describe the role of gang-members. obviously a 'mark' being a target is well-known, but there are words for e.g. the lifter/dipper (person that picks the pocket), the person that distracts and the people down the chain that transport the item away and the person that disposes of the bags/purses/wallets.

: many modern cons are based on the application of traditional ruses using modern technology - the Nigerian Advance-Fee Fraud is based on an old con.

: job titles, techniques and the broad shape of a criminal endeavour all give a chance for cant to adapt rather than disappear.

: I didn't notice job-titles in "Ocean's 11" but whilst the con was a modern one, the broad ideas were old and some of the traditional job-descriptions may have been used.

: So, with that in mind, I would like to argue that thieves' cant has adapted rather than disappeared.

: L

I think the difference is that cant, slang, argot or what you will changes much more quickly now: mass media and much faster means of communication mean that slang can change practically overnight.

I think an example of this is in the various words used in drug culture which apparently change faster than even some of those involved can't keep up with them.

DFG