I really was going to leave the Kinks behind and move on to less kinky pastures — I swear I was! — but then I remembered a truly nerdy story to tell, and I’m a sucker for nerdiness. And this story, it just so happens, ties in with a Kinks song. So here goes:
A few weeks ago, I went to see someone in the IT department at the university here in Lampeter, and when I asked him a question about my email account, he turned to face his computer and said, “Let’s have a butcher.”
This confused me (as I assume it confuses you), but I was still getting used to the thick accent in West Wales and thought I might have misheard him, so I asked, “A butcher?” And he explained, “Ah, it’s rhyming slang. ‘Butcher’s hook’ rhymes with ‘look.’ And so I said ‘Let’s have a butcher’ instead of ‘Let’s have a look.'”
This seemed so bizarre I assumed he couldn’t be making it up, and so I went home and researched the matter further. Sure enough, there’s a well-established tradition of Cockney rhyming slang that emerged out of the East End of London in the mid-nineteenth century. (Think Oliver Twist if you’re trying to picture a context.) Rhyming slang likely began as a kind of code (or “cryptolect”) used by merchants in the markets to convey information to one another without customers understanding what they were saying. It may also have had its roots in thieves’ cant, slang that criminals used to confuse the authorities that dates back at least as far as Shakespeare’s time.
In any case, the premise of rhyming slang is a) you take a word that you want to encode; b) you find a (typically) two-word phrase that rhymes with it; and c) you then use the part of the two-word phrase that doesn’t rhyme with the word you’re encoding. One traditional substitution, for example, is to use the word “plates” to mean “feet” — and this, of course (!), since “feet” rhymes with “plates of meat.” It would be reasonable, then, to say, “Ah, I been on me plates all day,” at least if you were a Cockney merchant in the 1850s.
If you’ll allow me some vulgarity, I was interested to learn that this is where the term “berk” comes from. “Berk,” if you haven’t come across it before, is a British slang insult that means something in between “nerd” and “prat” — not a nice term, but not a terrible thing to say. But it turns out that “berk” came into use as a shortened form of the phrase “Berkeley Hunt,” which in turn was rhyming slang for a much ruder term still. I’ve been calling people “berks” for years without knowing this is what I was saying.
Anyways, this brings me to the Kinks, who have a song called “Harry Rag” that, until I met the IT guy in Lampeter, has never made much sense to me. Harry Wragg was a famous British jockey, and his name, you might note, rhymes with “fag,” which in Britain means “cigarette.” (Let us pause to observe that “bumming a fag” means very different things in Britain and the US. Useful to know this, perhaps.) In any case, rhyming slang picked up on Harry Wragg’s name as a substitute for “fag” sometime around the 1940s; and so someone looking for a cigarette might very well say, “Ah, give us a Harry Wragg, will ya?”
In the late 1960s, things got more complicated still, as “Harry Wragg” became slang not just for a cigarette, but for a joint. And so, after years of loving this song, I finally understand what it means.
Incidentally, there is a second intricate cryptolect you can find in London, one that goes by the name of Palari (though this name gets spelled many different ways). There are about 500 words in Palari, a strange jumble of pigeon Italian, sailor’s jargon, thieves’ cant, Cockney slang, and a hodgepodge of other sources. It was used for decades as an insider-language by a variety of subcultures — sailors, circus performers, and especially actors– but most notably it was adopted by the British gay community in the 1950s and 1960s. Homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal in the UK until 1967, and so speaking Palari provided a comparatively safe option for disguising conversations in public. You probably know at least one word of Palari already, thanks to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: “zhoosh.”
And in a month or two on the blog, once we get up to the 1990s, I’ll most likely include the Morrissey track “Piccadilly Palare.” That is, assuming I ever stop posting Kinks songs…