What is Back Slang?

Back slang is like a secret language; similar to professional jargon, but less snobby, and more fun. The aim, though, is the same – to keep those outside the chosen group in ignorance.

Lawyers may use jargon like exhibit for a document produced in court, or subpoena for an order to get someone to come to court as a witness; doctors may talk about hypotension and hypertension when referring to patients with low or high blood pressure; and educationists may refer to a structured learning environment when they mean the classroom. Not everybody will know what they mean by these terms, but all of their colleagues will (though a teacher friend told me she had to ask the chap sent in to give ‘refresher training’ what on earth he meant by that last term).

 Sometimes jargon is justified – it can be more precise, you can convey something in a word rather than a sentence. Other times it is lazy language use at best, or is deliberately used to exclude the patient / client from properly understanding something, or to show off the speaker’s superior knowledge. Sometimes it’s just silly – like the obfuscation used to refer to a classroom.

Victorian costermongers

But an ‘insider’s language’ is not just the prerogative of the professional classes. Wordplay, such as back slang, can also be used to excude those not in the know. In some areas, market traders may still talk about segabbac, and scarrot, and butchers may offer their friends some nacob, along with an enob for the dog. (If those words make no sense to you, here’s a clue: think about a back slang word – yob – that has broken through into everyday parlance: a yob is basically a (bad) boy spelt backwards.)

Back slang was first spoken in the East End of London nearly two hundred years ago. It was written about in the 1840s by the journalist and playwright Henry Mayhew, who was fascinated by the lives and language of the Victorian working classes. It was probably invented by costermongers (street market traders) so that they could talk freely to each other across crowded streets about things they didn’t want the customers to understand. Maybe things like how many siennep they were charging for their spinrut.

 There’s not so much of it about these days. Which is a pity, as once you start thinking in back slang, it is quite addictive. Maybe I will write my next blog in kab gnals – ti steg reisae sa ouy og gnola.

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