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The George Harley Mysteries

As the poet Carl Sandburg once said: “Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”, but essentially it is the language of the dispossessed, the marginal. As quickly as it is assimilated into the mainstream it slips its chains and reinvents itself. It is resilient and untameable— the voice of the city.

Within the George Harley Mystery books the reader will come across characters speaking thieves’ cant, Polari, Yiddish, rhyming slang and street argot. Many of the phrases have their roots in the vulgar and the profane; but mostly it is a language of rough poetry, inventiveness and humour.

In recreating Harley’s world the author has endeavoured to employ the authentic vernacular and idioms of 1930s London. As well as referring to contemporary fiction of the period, the following dictionaries of slang proved invaluable:
Captain Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1931)
Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of the Underworld (London, 1949)
Jonathan Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Slang (London, 1998)



backsl. - backslang: a type of slang where the written word is pronounced backwards (e.g. ‘yob’ for ‘boy’).

Pol. - Polari: theatrical cant first used by actors, circus folk and fairground showmen, and then taken up by the gay subculture.

Rom. - Romany: the language of the Romany people (Gypsies). An Indo-European language related to Hindustani. - rhyming slang: a variety of slang where a word is replaced by a phrase (usually clipped) which rhymes with it (e.g. barnet = barnet fair = hair).

Yid. - Yiddish: the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews, based on German dialect with added words from Hebrew, Polish, French and English.


anny - gin [ anne boleyn = gin]

arris - the behind [ aristotle = bottle = bottle and glass = arse]

asterbar - a bastard [semi-backsl.]

bang your kettle - to look at a watch [the early large pocket watches resembled kettles]

barney - a pocket[ barney moke = poke]

batt - shoes [Pol.]

berk - a fool, an incompetent [ Berkeley hunt = cunt]. Since the 1930s this has fallen into common usage; although I would imagine that most people would not use it so readily if they knew its origin

bleat - to inform on someone to the Police

blue ruin - gin [“blue” as in miserable; i.e. its effects]

boat - the face [ boat race = face]

bogey - CID detective [“Old Bogey” = the Devil]

bold - daring [Pol.]

bolshie - a left-winger, socialist or an opponent of the status quo. Also uncooperative, subversive, obstructive [from Bolshevik]

bona - good, pleasant; very [Pol. Italian buono, good]

bona nochy - goodnight[Pol. Italian buonanotte, goodnight]

bonaroo - wonderful, excellent [Pol. Italian buono, good]

borarco - a drunkard [Pol. Spanish borracho, drunkard]

brama - a pretty woman [British Raj -Brahma is the supreme God of Hindu mythology]

brass - a prostitute [ brass nail = tail; tail was a 19C term for a prostitute]

bright'un - a gun [from its shiny surface?]

Buck House - Buckingham Palace, London home of the Royal Family

bunce - money, profit [perhaps from bonus]

burick - a common, or flashily-dressed woman; prostitute [Rom. burk, breast]

butcher's - a look [ butcher’s hook = look]

buvare – a drink [Pol.]

cabbage- cash [US - green banknotes]

cackle - empty chatter, gossip [the sound made by a hen]

case up - to live with as if married [Italian casa, house]

caught out - pregnant

charpering omi - a policeman [Pol. Italian cecare, to seek; uomo, man]

cheese it! - shut up! stop it! [a corruption of “cease it!”]

chicken - a young male homosexual

chife/chiv - a knife, a razor [Rom. chiv, chive, knife]

chiv-man - a criminal apt to use a knife or razor as a weapon [see chife/chiv]

chokey - prison [British Raj - Hindustani chauki, customs house or police station]

chordy gear - stolen goods [Rom. cor, to steal]

claret - blood [its resemblance to red wine]

cod - vile [Pol.]

corybungus - the behind [Pol.]

cowson - a general insult, similar to son of a bitch.

crease - to kill [from the body creasing at the waist]

cut up didoes - to play pranks

deadly nevergreen - the gallows

Dilly, the - Piccadilly, London

dilly boy - a teenage male prostitute [Piccadilly was well-known for its prostitution]

dinarly - money [Pol. Spanish dinero, money, Italian denaro, money]

dog’s soup - water

dollar - five shillings

dorcas - someone who is caring, generous [The Dorcas Society was a ladies' charitable church association]

drag - a motor vehicle [originally a term for a stage coach, which is dragged by its team of horses]

eyetie - an Italian [derogatory; exaggerated pronunciation]

eye-water - gin

factory - a police station

finocchio - a male homosexual [Italian finocchio, fennel]

fogus - tobacco [“Cod Latin” elaboration of fog]

gammon - chatter, nonsense, cheating patter [ perhaps from tying up a ham]

garret - the head [it is at the top of the house]

gelt - money [Yid. gelt, money]

Corporal Dunlop - a short rubber truncheon

gentle persuader- a gun, a hammer

gillflirt - a vain capricious woman [gill, girl, lass]

ginney - an Italian [derogatory; ? from Italian seaman sailing from the Guinea Coast]

god forbids - children [ god forbids = kids]

gold watch - whisky [ gold watch = scotch]

goy - a gentile, a non-Jew [Yid. from the Hebrew goy, a nation]

groin/groinage - ring(s), especially set with gems [from tramp slang gravney/grawney, ring]

half-a-bar - ten shillings [bar = £1 sterling; ? from Rom. bauro, heavy, big]

hocus - to incapacitate someone with drugged liquor

homi-poloney - an effeminate male homosexual [Pol. Italian uomo, man; pollo, chicken]

ikey-mo - a Jew [derogatory; from Isaac + Moses]

iron - a male homosexual [ iron hoof = poof]

ixnay - nothing, not at all [backsl. nix; from German nichts, nothing]

jane - a prostitute [ jane shore = whore; Jane Shore - mistress of Edward IV]

jarry - food [Pol. Italian mangiare, to eat]

joe ronce - a ponce (pimp) [ see ponce]

judy - a woman, a girl [from Punch and Judy]

kaffies - trouser [Pol.]

kate and sidney - steak and kidney []

keep nix - to act as a lookout

khazi- a toilet [ ? British Raj—derogatory allusion to the habits of the Khasi people]

kibbitz - to offer unwanted advice in a card game [Yid. from German Kiebitz, lapwing]

kite - the stomach [ ? from British dialect kyte, womb, stomach]

knowledge box - the head

kvetch - to whine, to complain [Yid.]

lakes - mad [ lakes of Killarney = barmy]

lamp - a black eye

lavender boy - a male homosexual [ ? from the lavender water that they used]

lilly/lilly law - a policeman/the police [Pol.]

lit up - drunk

lumbered - arrested

madam, a load of old - nonsense, rubbish, flattery [ ? from shopkeepers’ patter: ‘Of course it will, madam’]

mamzer - a bastard—though used as a term of endearment [Yid. mamzer, bastard]

manor - a police district; a policeman’s beat; a wide-boy’s patch [from “Lord of the manor”]

meshugaas - craziness [Yid.]

meshuggener – crazy, a crazy person [Yid.]

milky - cowardly, scared

mooey - the mouth [Rom. mooi, mouth]

mort - a woman, especially a prostitute [ ? from Old Dutch mot, whore]

mott - see mort

mott shop - a brothel

mush - a man, a “chap” [Rom. moosh, a man]

muzzler - a male homosexual [from the muzzle - mouth, hence to fellate]

myrna loy - a saveloy [ Myrna Loy = saveloy; Myrna Loy - movie star]

nanti - not, nothing, none [Pol. Italian niente, nothing]

nark - a police informer [Rom. nak, nose]

nebbish - a nobody, a loser [Yid. nebech, an inept pitiable man]

nix - nothing [from German nichts, nothing]

nymph of the pave - a prostitute

off-the-cob - corny, unfashionable [US from corncob—an implication of rustic poverty]

oil of angels - a bribe [an angel was an old English coin]

oily - a cigarette [ oily rag = fag]

old slithery, the - sex

on the bash - to work as a prostitute [from bash, bang, bonk etc.]

on the ribs - to be without any visible means of subsistence [so starved the ribs are showing]

on velvet - to be well off, living in clover

oncer - £1 sterling

ones-and-twos - shoes [ ones-and-twos = shoes]

pen and ink - stink [ pen and ink = stink]

pen yen- opium [ ? from the Cantonese nga pun-yin, opium]

people - trustworthy, loyal, safe; able to keep secrets [see staunch]

pester up - to pay, to pay up [Rom. pesser, pay]

pinch - to arrest

plates - feet [ plates of meat = feet]

ponce - a pimp, a man “living off immoral earnings” [ ? from French Alphonse, or possibly pont or pontonnière, a prostitute who works from the arches of a bridge]

pooter - a prostitute [ ? from British Raj—Hindustani poot, shilling]

pouch - to carry a weapon

pound-noteish - pompous, affected [seen as characteristics of the rich]

pronterino - quickly

put the buff in downy - to go to bed [buff = skin, downy = feather bed]

put the kibosh on - to spoil, to ruin [ ? Yid. kabas, to suppress]

put the oliver on - to scam [from Oliver Twist - a dishonest twist]

put the squeak in - to inform on

put up the fanny - to tell a false story

queanie - a male homosexual [from Old English cwene, woman]

rod - an overcoat [ ? a connection to 19C rockalow, from the French roquelaure, a type of cloak]

rosie - tea [ rosie lee = tea; Gypsy Rose Lee - American stripper]

schlemiel - a fool, a clumsy person, a misfit [Yid.]

schlep - to travel an inconvenient distance [Yid. schlep, to drag]

schmendrik - a clueless mama's boy [Yid.]

schmundie - the vagina [Yid.]

schmutter - clothes [Yid. shmatte, rags]

schtuk- trouble, bother [despite its appearance not a Yiddish word; ? stuck adapted to a Yiddish model]

schtum - quiet, silent [Yid. shtum, dumb, voiceless]

screever - a pavement artist who draws in coloured chalk [Italian scrivere, to write]

screwsman - a skilled house-beaker [screw is criminal slang for a skeleton key]

shant of bivvy - a pot or pint of beer [bivvy from Latinbibere, to drink]

shant of wallop - a pot or pint of beer [“wallop” as in its effects on the drinker]

sharper - to steal, to cheat [Pol. as in card sharp]

sharpy - a policeman [Pol. from charpering omi – see above]

sheeny - a Jew [derogatory; from Yid. shayner Yid, a beautiful-faced Jew - i.e. a description of an old-fashioned traditional European Jew]

schlemozzle - disturbance, uproar, noise [Yid.]

shice - nothing, no good [Yid. scheisse, shit]

shicer - a lowlife, good-for-nothing [see shice]

skimish - beer/alcohol [from Shelta (travellers' language)]

smother - an overcoat [ it smothers the wearer, but also ? from Yid. shmatte, rags]

snide - counterfeit [ ? from German schneide, to cut, as in to cut fake coins]

snow- cocaine

soup - thick London smog [its resemblance to pea soup]

spieler - an illegal gambling club [German spielen, to play]

spruce – to tell lies, to cheat, to flatter [i.e. “sprucing up” the facts]

squirter - a gun

staunch - trustworthy, loyal, safe; able to keep secrets [see people]

steamer - a fool, a gullible person, a punter [ steam tug = mug]

stir - prison [Rom. sturiben, prison]

stone-ginger - an absolute certainty [Stone Ginger was a celebrated champion racehorse in New Zealand; the meaning is emphasised by the use of stone to mean “absolutely”—e.g. stone blind, stone-cold sober etc.]

straight-cut - a respectable woman

stripe - to slash with a cut-throat razor

take stoppo - to be obliged to run away [acting on the lookout’s cry of “stop!”]

tightener - a substantial meal [its effects on the stomach, especially if it is a rarity]

tomfoolery - jewellery [ tomfoolery = jewellery]

top-storey man - a cat-burglar

trade - a prostitute’s clients

treyf - not kosher [Yid.]

troll - of a prostitute, to work the streets looking for punters [Pol.]

tub - an omnibus [from its resemblance to a bath tub]

tut - (pronounced like put) rubbish, worthless items [probably a corruption of tot, bone as in totter, rag-and-bone man; from German tod, dead]

vada - to look at [Pol. Venetian vardia, a look]

vodeodo - money [a playful rendering of dough]

whistle - a suit [ whistle and flute = suit]

wide - sharp-witted, shrewd; also (of clothing) flash, ostentatious [wide awake]

wide-boy - petty criminal, wheeler-dealer, minor villain

wind pudding, to eat - to go without food

work the black - to blackmail

yews - the eyes [Pol. French yeux, eyes]

yiddified - anti-Semitic

yok - a gentile, a non-Jew [backsl. see goy]

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