As we’ve seen in previous Word pages, slang gets invented as a means of exclusion: insiders don’t want outsiders to know what they are talking about. This happen at all levels of society and in all trades and professions. The young have their own slang because they don’t want old people (that is, their parents) to even get a gist of what they are saying to each other.
Some trades are more likely to use slang simply because outsiders are constantly present and listening in on what they are discussing. Barrow boys, for instance, are always surrounded by customers who can hear everything they say in inter-barrow badinage.
If they want to comment on the quality of their fruit and veg (or the lack of it) then they have an appropriate arsenal of slang words and phrases that keeps outsiders in the dark.
They can make fun of the way a customer is dressed, say, and in such a way the buyer doesn’t even know he or she is under scrutiny. Slang can be most practical and is often funny — if you know what the words and phrases mean.
The slang language of the trades and professions is sometimes called tradespeak. People in the secondhand car business (think of TV’s Arfur Daly, alias George Cole) are especially fond of tradespeak, much of it based on rhyming slang.
Sometimes the rhyming connection I obvious but it can also be more than a little indirect. A ‘fridge freezer’ is straight rhyming slang and means geezer, so there’s nothing obscure about that. But a car so badly wrecked it’s an insurance write-off is called a ‘turn’, short for ‘turn off the light’.
If a ‘fridge freezer’ says he’d like to buy a ‘floating’, he’s interested in a car. The full term is ‘floating voter’, rhyming slang for motor. It’s not a Cole Porter rhyme, but this is rhyming slang, not a Broadway musical.
The term ‘freddies’ is even more complex. It comes from Freddy and the Dreamers and therefore means ‘beamers’, or BMWs. If a car, new or secondhand, has good ‘sexual tension’, it doesn’t mean there’s plenty of room for a bit of hanky-panky. It simply has good hydraulic suspension.
When someone says a car is ‘leggy’, you may have visions of yourself sitting back in the front passenger seat with your legs fully stretched out. But the term means the car has a good few miles on the clock.
A Porsche 911 (pronounced nine-eleven) becomes an ‘S Club’, short for ‘S Club Seven’. A V8 is called a ‘Terry’, short for Terry Waite. At bingo they also say: “Terry Waite, number eight.” If someone wants to buy a car for his wife, he could say it’s for ‘the love and kisses’, or the missus.
As always with slang terms, some of the allusions can be rather funny. In motorcar lingo, what would you say a ‘bidet’ is? Well, its function is is somewhat similar to that of the classic bathroom fixture: a rear wash wipe, usually on a hatchback.
There’s nothing a secondhand car dealer likes better than ‘sausage and mash’ — but it’s not something he orders for lunch at a nearby caff. It’s rhyming slang for cash.
When the sale price is £500, he calls it a ‘monkey’ or a ‘gorilla’. A sum of £1,500 is an ‘ocelot’. If you can’t pay in ‘sausage and mash’, a dealer may offer you a car ‘on the drip’, or in monthly instalments. But he’ll want you to pay a ‘dipper’, or down payment.
Even the Arfur Daly types sometimes deal in up-market cars such as an ‘ever-so-gently’, rhyming slang for a Bentley. Another top car is a ‘Kathy’, short for Kathy Burke, or Merc.
But an Arfur Daly is more likely to be trying to sell you a ‘cut and shut’: a car constructed out of the parts of several vehicles, some of which were ‘turns’, or insurance write-offs.
The refreshing mixture known as Buck’s Fizz came up in a recent conversation and someone wanted to know how it got that name. The fizz part is obvious, but where did Buck’s come from?
This drink originated in France where it is known as ‘champagne à l’orange’. After the First World War it became a fashionable mid-day tipple at Buck’ s Club in Mayfair. The senior barman, Pat McGarry, is believed to have been the first person in Britain to make the drink, which is called Mimosa in America. McGarry always used freshly pressed orange juice and added a dash of grenadine.
In the same conversation, someone was wondering why top people are sometimes called the upper-crust. She said crust simply meant a layer but a friend was sure it had something to do with bread. Who is right?
Both are. In a class-economic sense it refers to the upper layers of society, but the term’s origin also has to do with the baking of bread in wood-fired ovens. After the wood is set alight and consumed, the embers are brushed aside and the dough is put on the oven floor to bake.
There is usually a light covering of ash on the oven floor so the base of the bread can pick up some of the ash and sometimes gets a little scorched. In a big English house a few centuries ago, a loaf was sliced through the circumference and distributed according to status.
The workers got the dirty and sometimes burnt bottom of the loaf, the family ate from the middle section, and the top part, which contained soft crumb and lots of crunchy upper crust, was kept for guests, especially those of high rank.
But the metaphorical use of ‘upper crust’ in its modern sense is an early 19th century Americanism first used by humorist Thomas Haliburton in Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville (1837), a book in which he pokes fun at political humbug.
If you have ever bought bread from a Majorcan bakery that still uses a wood-fired oven, you will have noticed that parts of the bottom are sometimes smeared with ash. Just wipe it off, it won’t do you any harm.