From Susie Dent’s fascinating new book on ‘modern tribes’
The lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent is well-known in the UK thanks to her role as the resident word expert and adjudicator on the long-running Channel 4 quiz show Countdown (the very first programme broadcast on the channel in 1982; Susie Dent joined the show in 1992). Dent is also the author of a series of popular books on the English language. Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain is her latest book, and we were fortunate enough to be recipients of a review copy. The book is a treasure-trove of unusual jargon and colourful slang from various trades, clubs, sports, social groups, and walks of life – everything from an old publican’s friendly nickname for a habitual drinker (that’s a tosspot) to the theatrical term for an actor who performs in an exaggerated, hammy manner (that’ll be a scenery-chewer). Dent has been scouring old dictionaries of slang and other historical sources for such memorable linguistic zingers.
The pioneer of this kind of book was Francis Grose, whose Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published in 1785, thirty years after Samuel Johnson published his landmark dictionary of the English language. Grose recorded for posterity all manner of curious words then in use among ordinary people, from frog’s wine (slang for gin) to blind Cupid (slang for the backside). But slang, as G. K. Chesterton observed, is the ‘one stream of poetry which is continually flowing’, and our language has moved on a great deal in the 230-odd years since Grose collected his list of ‘vulgar’ terms. Like Grose’s Dictionary, Susie Dent’s book shines a light into some neglected corners of the English language, and the result is a fascinating array of wonderfully descriptive words and phrases.
The whole of Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain is great fun to read – an ideal book for dipping into, with each page yielding a wealth of new terms from the world of sport, hobbies, and the major professions. Who knew, for instance, that undertakers sometimes refer to death as the glue factory, because old horses often had their hooves rendered into glue after death? Or that someone newly released from prison after serving a stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure might have to wear a Peckham Rolex, otherwise known as a tag? And we love the fact that sailors used to refer to sea salt as Neptune’s dandruff.
We were already familiar with some of the pieces of jargon and slang from the world of printing which Dent describes – for instance, that cliché was derived from the French name for a block of stock text used by printers of movable type, and that stereotype also began life in the printer’s office as a word for the metal cast used for common phrases. But we didn’t know that dog’s bollocks, now used to describe something of top quality (not unlike the cat’s whiskers or the bee’s knees), was originally a joke amongst printers for a colon followed by a dash (so :—). This is what makes Dent’s Modern Tribes such a joy to read and dip into: for everything you might already know, there are many new bits of colourful slang to discover.
Some of the slang terms Dent has uncovered are just plain odd: for instance, that the paparazzi’s penchant for hosing down (taking a bombardment of photographs as the celebrity or public figure comes into sight) is also known as hosing the Doris. Whatever its origin, it raises a smile, even if it sounds more like an Australian slang term for answering a call of nature after a few lagers. Talking of booze, we never guessed that gin had gone under so many different names: not only mother’s ruin (as is well known) but tiger’s milk, tittery, royal bob, and our personal favourite, strip-me-naked. And it’s interesting to know (even if we won’t be trying it any time soon) that an old remedy for a hangover involved mixing crab’s eyes with wine or vinegar.
Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain is a fine stocking-filler, a book for the word-lover and anyone curious about the history of the English language as well as the modern-day slang in use around the country. Dent shines a light on some of the most vivid, arresting, and graphic slang terms out there in the world of work and play – many of which are utterly unknown to us, unless we happen to be part of that ‘tribe’. To borrow J. B. S. Haldane’s line about the universe, the English language is perhaps not just queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. And all the more fascinating for it.