Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

I’m going up the apples and pears to Uncle Ned

Slang (argot in French) often sets people’s teeth on edge.

It’s just not proper English they say. But slang is to language what yeast is to beer.  It is, as poet and essayist Walt Whitman said, ‘the wholesome fermentation of the language processes’.

Arguably, the greatest master of slang was William Shakespeare, whose slang matured almost overnight into champagne Oxford English.  His works contain several thousand new-fangled, never-heard-before words: a rich brew of borrowed terms from foreign languages, compound words from existing English terms, nouns turned into verbs, and creatively applied prefixes. We can thank him for terms such as arch-villain, advertising, torture, submerge, bedazzled, amazement, generous, gloomy, cold-blooded, scuffle and swagger… just a taste of his cutting-edge, avant-garde slang of the 16th century.

Slang is the ever-changing use and definition of words in informal conversation. It is the way we keep language modern, fresh and relevant.

In A Defense of Slang, published in 1902, American critic Gelett Burgess likened American slang to poetry; ‘a picturesque element that spices the language with enthusiasm.’

It is the coded language of a belonging to a gender, race, region, class, income, trade or profession (legal or illegal). It is often incomprehensible (sometimes purposefully) to outsiders. It is often vulgar and humorous.

Les Rosbifs have, as they do, appropriated the French word argot. It appears in the Oxford Dictionary with the following definition:

words and phrases that are used by a particular group of people and not easily understood by others

The word slang has a different definition:

very informal words and expressions that are more common in spoken language, especially used by a particular group of people, for example, children, criminals, soldiers, etc

Slang has been the popular language of thieves and vagabonds. It offered some protection from the unwelcome attention of noses, narks and blowers (informers and spies) and cops, rozzers, bobbies, morks, bulkys, beaks, gumshoes, dicks, pigs or blue bottles (police).

Slang blossomed as the jargon of particular trades and professions.

In the 1940s American writer and poet Carl Sandburg described slang as a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.

Many of the following visual and witty terms have become defunct in our post-industrial economy.

In British slang, a journalist may have been referred to as an adjective jerker, scribe or ink-slinger; a lawyer was a black box or silk; a tailor was a button-catcher or Knight of the Thimble; a commercial traveller was a bagman, a tradesman was a blue apron, a lawyer a black box, a priest or clergyman was a black coat,  Holy Joe or devil dodger; an undertaker was a carrion-hunter,  a violinist was a catgut scraper, a schoolmaster was a gerund grinder, a baker was the Master of the Rolls, and a clerk was a pen-pusher.

To bang the market was to force down the price, to buttle was to do the job of a butler, to do something without permission was to take French leave, to print a newspaper was to put it to bed.

Money was bees and honey, cabbage, dosh, dough, frogskins, duckets, loot, bones, folding stuff, lolly and moolah.

Some slang terms like cool have been with us for many decades and mutated several times. Hippie cool is definitely not like jazz cool. Are you cool with that?  

The word slang itself is now used as a synonym for selling; especially illegal drugs.

The term busted originally meant broken. It also means to be caught red-handed (doing something you shouldn’t be doing). You might be busted by your parents smoking pot in your room or busted by police for speeding. Today, busted is a derogatory term used by young people to describe a woman.

One of the richest and most amusing genres of slang comes from Cockney in the east of London. Cockney rhyming slang developed among traders in the city markets of the 1840s. It both confused the outsider and created a tight community of users.

Apples and pears means stairs, bacon and eggs are legs, an Oxford scholar is a dollar, one’s wife was trouble and strife and rabbit and pork was talk.

So one could say:

You can stop rabbiting now. I’m going up the apples to Uncle Ned (bed) to rest my bacons. If the trouble comes home tell her I’m bo-peeping (sleeping).



to set people’s teeth on edge – make people feel nervous and uncomfortable

yeast - an organism used in making bread and beer

incomprehensible – something that cannot be understood

to appropriate – to take someone’s ideas for your own use

to mutate – to develop into a new form or structure

derogatory – negative and insulting

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