Monday 12 April 2010

Llareggub Yobs

I was told the other day that a yob was a backwards boy. I didn't believe it. So many etymologies are much too neat and fanciful, especially the ones that involve acronyms and the movement of letters (shit does not mean Store High In Transit). But having pooh-poohed the idea I returned to my burrow and checked a dictionary only to discover that it really is backslang.

Backslang was a code used by Victorian costermongers and Edwardian thieves. There appears to have been quite a wide (and potentially limitless) vocabulary. I'm not sure how far you can credit The Box of Delights* (1935) with linguistic accuracy, but in it two would-be kidnappers use the phrase "Kool slop" which is explained thuslyly:

We would point out that the mystic words uttered by the reprobates are common thieves' slang: 'Kool slop' is what is called back slang: the words Look Police turned backwards. It is a familiar warning in the underworld.

This seems credible because the thing about backslang is that you have to be able to spell. To know that yob is boy backwards means that you know that Y can function as a consonant or a vowel - knowledge that would be denied to your typical urchin before the educational reforms of the 1880s.

[Londoners: there's a lovely point that when the tube was built it was assumed that most of the passengers would be illiterate so they wouldn't know when the train had arrived at their stop. That's why each station has a different pretty pattern of tiles. It is for the use of the illiterate. The same goes for pub signs, but I'm wandering.]

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas is the only good radio-play ever written, and is set in the Welsh town of Llareggub, which is deliciously convincing as all Welsh place names are invented by throwing consonants into a blender, or by very lazy Countdown contestants.

However, the reversible nature of Llareggub was considered so obvious by the printers that early editions changed it to Llaregyb, just to be on the safeside.

The Reverend Eli Jenkins, inky in his cool front parlour or poem-room, tells only the truth in his Lifework--the Population, Main Industry, Shipping, History, Topography, Flora and Fauna of the town he worships in--the White Book of Llarregub.

Which shows that I am not the only inky fellow in the land.
It is the glamour of grammar, let a human into the secrets of the written word and he will start playing with anagrams, acronyms, palindromes and semordnilaps; inventing, rearranging, tangling and encrypting.

There is an almost holy feel to it, which is perhaps why so many people spend so much time trying to decode the Bible. Of course, this is hard for English speakers (unless you believe the King James Version to be divinely inspired), but in Hebrew you can have hours of fun counting the alephs and deducing the mind of God. As Coleman says in Antic Hay when asked who the devil he is:

'I am that I am,' said Coleman. 'But I have with me [...] a physiologue, a pedagogue and a priapagogue; for I leave out of account mere artists and journalists whose titles do not end with the magic syllable. And finally,' indicating himself, 'plain Dog, which being interpreted kabbalistically backwards, signifies God. 'All at your service.'

"I am that I am", is another of God's titles and a picture of NATASHA I is used to similar effect in Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel while Red Rum, who won the Grand National whilst I was being born, had his name rudely hijacked by Stephen King. I have blogged before on the wonderful word mooreeffoc, any schoolchild knows which cheese is made backwards and anybody who will pay a pound for a bottle of Evian water is just that.

Yet I'm sure I'm forgetting one of the great examples of what are apparently called semordnilaps (palindromes backwards). And it's not even T.S. Eliot's morbid insistence on his middle initial.

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I'd assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot-toilet.
   - Auden (allegedly)

Dylan Thomas' map of Llareggub

*No prizes for guessing what book I re-read a couple of weeks ago.

P.S. There's a good article on backslang here.


  1. So when my elder brother, charged with babysitting his little sister, snarled from the depths of the couch 'Bed, Deb!', he was actually being clever.

    You have no idea how much I enjoy your blog. And you're younger by far, than I would have thought.

  2. Don't visit the Welsh Amateur Operatic Society production of 'Hello Dolly'.

    At least, not without an umbrella.

  3. Douglas Reed's Yeoman's Progress contains several examples of quasi-backslang, e.g., "renchild"; also, anti-Zionism and communist conspiracy theories predating McCarthyism.