New College of the Humanities

Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime

Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime
Jonathon Green
Random House   394pp   £14.99
ISBN 978 1847946287

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The British obsession with crime has long roots. Gruesome, moralising accounts of murder and violence have been a mainstay of the press since the invention of print. Some of the earliest best-sellers were the ‘coney-catching’ pamphlets of the 16th century, which chronicled the crimes of swindlers and thieves against their unwilling victims or ‘coneys’. Glossaries of the vocabulary of crime have just as long a history. Among the earliest guides to the world of crime was Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spital-House (c. 1535), in which a hospital porter instructs Copland on how to recognise thieves, vagabonds and other members of the ‘canting crew’.

Copland’s book was followed by many other guides to the idiom of the criminal underworld. Jonathon Green’s new book picks out the highlights of these works, providing a history of how crime has been described over the past five centuries while also proving itself a worthy heir to Copland and his successors. The book is structured in two parts. The first covers various types of serious and prolific offences and catalogues the language that has evolved to describe those involved in committing them. The second is concerned with the institutions that deal with crime, covering in turn the police, the courts and prisons.

In each part Green skillfully outlines the evolution of criminal slang, while also teasing out a number of wider themes. One is the sheer variety of specialist terms that have sprung up to describe every variant of an offence. Confidence tricksters, for example, can be described by terms as diverse as bilks, foolmongers, fiddlers or gougers. But various types of swindler have attracted their own, even more specific descriptions: like the kiter, who forges cheques, the jack in the box, who poses as an honest street trader, or the cracker, who uses fake or stolen credit cards. The oldest profession has an equally specific vocabulary, using terms like the Puff Daddy, a pimp whose prostitutes specialise in oral sex.

When it comes to those involved in bringing offenders to justice the book makes clear that it is the legal profession which has attracted the most abuse. From the 17th-century ambidexter, through the 18th-century son of prattlement, to the late Victorian ambulance-chaser, English slang for lawyers rarely seems to have been complimentary. By contrast, many names for the police seem to have focused on their uniforms: from the well-known boys in blue to the unboiled lobster (taking its name from the blue-black colour of the uncooked crustacean). Tithead, meanwhile, manages to combine an acerbic insult with a colourful description of the constable’s helmet. As for judges and magistrates, the term beak – first coined in the 16th century – is still with us today.

Not surprisingly it is prison, an occupational hazard for the career criminal, that has attracted some of the most vivid and wide-ranging slang. Green covers both well-known terms like stir (from the Romany for prison) and phrases that do not survive today. Whether a 17th-century cage-bird or a 19th-century con, prisoners seem to have had a knack for inventive descriptions of their surroundings. The book unpicks intriguing British terms like booby-house and Windsor Group hotel, while also comparing them with American and Australian equivalents.

Green is a renowned lexicographer who has previously published a definitive dictionary of slang. His expertise shines through in Crooked Talk, which is a comprehensive and entertaining guide to the language of law-breaking. Anyone who works in the criminal justice system or who has an interest in crime will find themselves dipping into it again and again.

Nick Poyntz is the author of the history blog Mercurius Politicus.

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