May 29, 2012

QotD: London slang of the 1930s

Filed under: Britain, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

London slang and dialect seem to change very rapidly. The old London accent described by Dickens and Surtees, with v for w and w for v and so forth, has now vanished utterly. The Cockney accent as we know it seems to have come up in the ‘forties (it is first mentioned in an American book, Herman Melville’s White Jacket), and Cockney is already changing; there are few people now who say ‘fice’ for ‘face’, ‘nawce’ for ‘nice’ and so forth as consistently as they did twenty years ago. The slang changes together with the accent. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, for instance, the ‘rhyming slang’ was all the rage in London. In the ‘rhyming slang’ everything was named by something rhyming with it — a ‘hit or miss’ for a kiss, ‘plates of meat’ for feet, etc. It was so common that it was even reproduced in novels; now it is almost extinct1. Perhaps all the words I have mentioned above will have vanished in another twenty years.

The swear words also change — or, at any rate, they are subject to fashions. For example, twenty years ago the London working classes habitually used the word ‘bloody’. Now they have abandoned it utterly, though novelists still represent them as using it. No born Londoner (it is different with people of Scotch or Irish origin) now says ‘bloody’, unless he is a man of some education. The word has, in fact, moved up in the social scale and ceased to be a swear word for the purposes of the working classes. The current London adjective, now tacked on to every noun, is ‘fucking’. No doubt in time ‘fucking’, like ‘bloody’, will find its way into the drawing-room and be replaced by some other word.

1. It survives in certain abbreviations, such as ‘use your twopenny’ or ‘use your head.’ ‘Twopenny’ is arrived at like this: head — loaf of bread — twopenny loaf — twopenny

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933.

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