Tag Archives: linguistics

UK gangster Reggie Kray on criminal slang and his suicide bid in prison

Micky Fawcett (left) with Reggie and Reggie’s wife Frances (Photograph from Micky Fawcett’s book Krayzy Days)

My chum Micky Fawcett gave me a very interesting book on Saturday: Slang by Reggie Kray.

It does what it says on the tin.

It is a dictionary of (mostly criminal) British and American slang words and phrases.

The cover claims it is “A must for Television Viewers, Film Directors and Script Writers.”

It includes some (to me) rare phrases such as:

“He’s at the jack and danny so blank him…”

“Cop for his boat and blow…”

“Get a rhubarb…”

and

“To be slommory…”

But perhaps I have led too sheltered a life.

Written when Reggie had ‘only’ done 16 years

The Slang book was written (with help from Steve Tully) when Reggie was 50 years old and in Parkhurst Prison – around 1983 – when, the book’s foreword says, he had “been in prison now for sixteen gruelling years”.

Reggie was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2000, eight and a half weeks before he died from cancer. aged 66. He and his twin Ronnie Kray, were born in 1933. They were arrested in 1968 and imprisoned in 1969. Ronnie died in prison in 1995, aged 61.

In the book, Reggie gives his hobby as “Writing” and his ambitions as “To be recognised as an author and to live in the country”.

As well as slang and nostalgic photos of the ‘good old days’, Reggie goes in for a bit of philosophising. It starts:

Reggie Kray (centre) among friends, including actor Victor Spinetti, actress Barbara Windsor, actor George Sewell, singer Lita Roza, comedian Jimmy Logan and actor Ronald Fraser (Photo from the book Slang by Reggie Kray)

“I had hidden myself under the blankets, I was soaking in sweat and blood. Whilst I continued to saw away at my wrist, with a broken piece of glass, which I had broken from my TV spectacles.

“Eventually I fell into a fitful sleep, only to wake up the following morning to the clang of the bolt being drawn across my cell door.

“It seems that my prayers had been answered in a strange sort of way, because prior to this attempted suicide, I had calmly smoked what I thought to be my last cigarette, and said a prayer. My state of mind stemmed from a period of time I had spent at Long Lartin Prison, and my meeting up with a foreigner…”

It is an interesting read.

Micky Fawcett’s book Krayzy Days is arguably the most realistic insider’s view of working with the Krays… as well as some other… erm… escapades.

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Bad language, cocaine smuggling and cavorting nuns in south west Ireland

All this week I have been in the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry in the south west of Ireland – and I have been trying to figure out some way of blogging about it without seeming to be making an Irish joke.

The English make ‘Irish’ jokes.

In Ireland, they make the same jokes about people from Kerry.

The reason for this is presumably because it so so isolated. I am told an electricity supply only reached the populated island of Valentia, opposite where I am staying, in around 1963. The mobile phone signal here varies from eccentric to non-existent (mostly the latter) and, as for high-speed broadband, you can pretty much forget it. Modems tend to be dial-up and publicly-accessible WiFi in pubs and suchlike is a futuristic concept.

But it is always good to be in Ireland.

I am Scottish. I was born in a west coast fishing town and my parents grew up in two different seaside villages in south west Scotland – all of which look and feel exactly the same as Irish seaside villages. So I feel at home in Ireland.

I worked in Dublin in the 1990s. When people used to come over from England, I made sure they knew four of the key linguistic features of the language.

1) You must never talk of the larger of the two British Isles as “the mainland” – Never ever say you have come over from or are going back to “the mainland” – This will get right up people’s noses.

2) British-style football is called “soccer” in the Republic of Ireland – “Football” here refers to Gaelic Football.

3) Never, in a pub, ask for “plain crisps” when you mean salted crisps. Crisps here (as in Irish pubs on the “mainland”) are assumed to be cheese & onion or salt & vinegar. And those two are usually the only choice.

4) Finally, more difficult to explain in print, the Republic’s national flag – the three-coloured green, white and orange flag – is not pronounced with a short initial syllable but with a long one. So it is not said to be a “trick-olour” – it is pronounced like the two words “try colour”.

Some things have changed since I last worked here. In Kerry – and, the locals tell me, now in the rest of he Republic – you are taxed on the amount of rubbish you produce. As an inevitable result, people put padlocks on their wastebins to prevent other people putting extraneous garbage into their bins. There are also tax discs on rubbish bins.

Worse still, there is a high tax on chocolate which must surely, at some time, create cross-border chocolate smuggling. When I was in Dublin, Galway etc in the 1990s, there was a fairly hefty black market trade in cigarettes because of the tax difference north and south of the Border.

The Good News upside to all this, though, is that there are no Council Taxes/rates.

The landscapes here can be spectacularly other-worldly. Apparently J.R.R.Tolkien used to come on holiday here and sketched the Skelligs – two eccentrically pointed islands (I am told) before he wrote Lord of the Rings. They certainly look like some fantastical alien planet style Middle Earthly peaks.

I have been living in a house not too far from Ballinskelligs. When I get up in the morning, there are sheep on the hillside outside with red letters of the alphabet painted on their wool – to show which have been tupped. Some farmers use red, some green, some other colours; and occasionally one farmer’s cheap green dye has been known to run in rain resulting, I am told, in green sheep.

I am also told that, rarely but occasionally, the sheep with red letters on their wool can stand in an order which accidentally spells out a word. The people I am staying with swear they once looked out their window over breakfast and saw six sheep standing in the field spelling out the word FLEECE as if they were in some animal version of Countdown.

People around here often do not make wills and, when they die, any old cousin or familiar hanger-on can claim a bit of the estate, not just the immediate family, so disputes can drag on for years. Even when a will is made there can be problems.

Recently, a local man died and, in his will, he left his house to his son but one room in the house to his daughter. The brother and sister have since fallen out. The people I am staying with do not know how the sister gets to her room via the rest of the building which the brother owns if the brother decides to be really difficult about access.

But a harsher reality sometimes intrudes even here.

Recently, two £500 million cocaine shipments (ie together they were allegedly worth £1 billion) were intercepted within two weeks, both coming in by boat.

In the first case, in keeping with Kerry, the smugglers put petrol into a diesel engine, the ship broke down and broke up on the rocks. Packages of cocaine were washing up ashore all over the place like Whisky Galore!. If anyone found a bundle, they could be made for life. A spokesman for the Gardai (the police) said these sort of shipments were happening not just in this area but in several parts of Ireland every week. It was just a matter of luck if they were able to intercept occasional ones.

When I was here in the 1990s, I was told there was a problem intercepting drugs shipments because the Coastguard had boats and were responsible for guarding the seas, while the Gardai were responsible for inland security, including rivers, but had no boats.

So drug runners would bring shipments in around the Shannon area either by air or by sea and then use the Republic’s extensive river system to transport them to other parts of the country and to the North. If the Gardai wanted to intercept or chase them, they had to find some local with a boat and beg, borrow or negotiate a deal to rent it.

Inevitably things which seem to be likely plots from a sitcom like Father Ted become reality here.

Twenty or thirty nuns regularly take their summer holidays down the road from where I have been living and they used to wear their black and white habits while here (they no longer wear the habit on holiday). They were called “the penguins” by locals and could be seen cavorting on the beach.

“Ah! The penguins are on the beach!”

Someone I know here – who swears this is 100% true – says she was on the beach one day and heard two nuns shouting to each other:

“What’s the water like, Sister Mary?”

“Feckin’ freezin’!”

My chum (a practising Catholic) was shocked a nun would say “feckin”.

I am more bemused by the fact nuns were cavorting on the beach at all.

Who knew nuns took summer holidays? Not me. What else do they do on their holidays?

“Well,” my chum explained to me, “of course they have holidays. And lots of priests go to Cheltenham over the St Patrick’s Day weekend to bet on the horses. Maybe 80% of the people at the races that weekend are Irish, the local shops accept Euros and the place is awash with priests in dog collars.”

“But didn’t Jesus throw money-lenders and money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem?” I asked.

“Maybe,” came the reply, “but I am more worried about the ‘feckin’ nuns. What sort of language is that?”

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Bad language in Scotland?

Last night I went to a very interesting talk at the British Library by author and publisher James Robertson about The Guid Scots Tongue.

It was a bit like Scots comic Stanley Baxter’s legendary series of Parliamo Glasgow sketches in his 1960s and 1970s TV shows. But with genuine academic credibility.

James Robertson seemed to confirm that Old English developed into Middle English south of the border and into the “Scottish” language north of the border and that, ever since then, people have bemoaned the ‘fact’ that Scots is dying.

I remember Melvyn Bragg saying in his ITV series The Adventure of English that, before Henry VIII, English was a dying language only used by the underclasses. The upper ruling elite spoke Latin and Norman French. But, when Henry decided to split from the Roman Catholic Church so he could knob the wife of his choice, he created the Church of England and commissioned ’The Great Bible’ – the first authorised translation of the Bible into English not Latin. This was distributed to every church in the country and rescued English from its decline and possible extinction.

Last night, James Robertson pointed out that, when King James VI of Scotland took over the English throne in 1603, became King James I of England and brought the Scottish court to London, one of the things he did was to commission the 1611 translation of the Bible into English – the Authorised King James Version of the Bible – which was distributed to every church in England, Scotland and Wales. Ironically, it was never translated into Scottish and this strengthened the hold of the English language in Scotland.

My mother’s grandmother could not speak English until she came down out of the hills. She was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland and spoke Gaelic – pronounced Gaah-lick not Gay-lick. She only learned English when she came to the village of Dunning in Perthshire. Or, some might say, she only learned “Scottish” when she moved to Dunning.

Historically in Scotland, after a certain point, Gaelic was the language of the Highlands and so-called “Scottish” was the language of the Lowlands.

I have never believed there was such a language as “Scottish”. To me, it’s clearly a dialect of English (as opposed to Gaelic which IS a different language). Wikipedian debate will no doubt run for decades about it.

If you disagree, haud yer wheesht, dinnae fash yersell aboot it and try no to be too scunnered.

Most languages, dialects and accents are a dog’s dinner of sources. Fash apparently comes from the Old French fascher and ultimately the Latin fastidium. Scunnered apparently has its origins in Middle English. Nothing is pure, not even Baby Spice. Only the French try (unsuccessfully) to keep their language pure.

I was born in Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. My home town pipe band played on possibly the dreariest song any Beatle ever wrote. When I was three, we moved to Aberdeen in north east Scotland. My parents had friends along the coast in Banffshire where the locals speak to each other in an almost totally incomprehensible dialect which theoretical academics now apparently call Buchan. I call it bloody incomprehensible.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, I think I saw a comedy show entitled 100 Shit Things About Scotland though I can’t seem to find any reference to it. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. But one of the 100 shit things about Scotland I thought I heard was the fact “There are some accents even WE don’t understand”.

Bloody right. Buchan fer yin.

When I was eight, we moved to Ilford in England – it is theoretically in Essex but actually on the outer edge of East London. Over the years, I’ve lost my accent; I never chose to.

So what I’m trying to tell you is I’m interested in language. Perhaps you guessed that.

On the version of the recent Census form distributed in Scotland there is, for the first time, a question about whether you can read/speak/understand not just Gaelic but also the so-called “Scots” language – though how many supposed Scots language variations there might be I cannot even begin to imagine. The words people use in Dundee, Glasgow and Thurso are very different.

There are some great common words. Dreich is almost un-translatable into English in less than an entire paragraph. Crabbit is just a great and appropriate sound. As is Peelie-wallie and many others. But there are amazingly diverse words all over the UK – Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have wild variations in words, let alone Tyneside, North Norfolk, the Black Country and Devon. They are not separate languages, though.

English is a wonderful language because it has so many variants and has hoovered up so much from other languages – cascade, table and situation are all unchanged in spelling from the original French but pronounced differently. The arrival of radio, movies and then television may have homogenised the English language and be slowly eliminating a lot of dialect and accent variations but, with English now the de facto world language, there are going to be hundreds of variant languages growing up in coming years to rival past pidgin English.

Indeed, this seems to have already happened with BT call centres in India. I don’t know what they are speaking, but it’s no form of English I recognise.

Perhaps I am just mare than a wee bit glakit.

Several times in bookshops, I have picked up Irving Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and looked at the first page then put it back on the shelf. It looks too difficult to read, though lots of English people have, so it must just be wee me. I remember at school in Ilford, for some extraordinary reason, we had to read Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary and I found it incomprehensible in places; heaven knows what my English classmates made of it. They never said. Must be just me.

When I edited Scots comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography Handstands in the Darkwhich reads a bit like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and the movie Gladiator – the two of us had to decide how to write quoted dialogue which could be printed on the page, as she was brought up in East Glasgow where dialect, slang and strong accents prevail. Should we write it with all the dialect words intact or spell words phonetically? Both of those would mean it might be difficult for readers in London, let alone New York or Sydney, to understand.

Eventually, we decided to slightly Anglicise the dialogue but to include Scots words which would be easily understandable to non Scots… and to print some words phonetically so there would be a feeling of accent – for example, we printed the “police” as the “polis” throughout, because that is how it is pronounced in Glasgow and it is a distinct yet not too confusing word. It felt like you were reading genuine Scots dialogue, even though it was slightly Anglicised. I was wary of using the Glasgow word close, which means an indoor stairwell, because, in Edinburgh, it means an outdoor alleyway.

It’s a sare fecht.

Look, I could go on for hours about this. Think yourself lucky it stops here.

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