Wednesday 21 November 2012

Counting on the Race Course

I'll be talking in Blackwells Newcastle today at six, and Blackwells Edinburgh tomorrow at six thirty. Also, The Horologicon has just been voted the Alternative Christmas Bestseller by independent bookshops. Here's a Telegraph article about it.

I have been learning the language of bookmakers, from a bookie. Well, to be honest, I've only been learning to count to ten. It's a curious counting system, which has a fair amount of backslang. Backslang is the old Victorian underworld system of slang that gave us the yob, or backwards boy. You get this with ruof, xis, neves and possibly tee aitch. Then there's the rhyming slang of cock and hen for ten. One is taken directly from the semaphore system used on the race course and actually said aloud as "top of the head", which seems rather cumbersome. And my informant has no idea about bottle or carpet.

1 Top of the head
2 A bottle
3 Carpet
4 Ruof (pronounced rough)
5 Handful
6 Xis (pronounced exes)
7 Neves (pronounced nevers)
8 Tee Aitch (presumably back-slang from eight or THgie)
9 Nines
10 Cock and hen

The reason I note all this down is that, apparently, the language is dying. Moreover, it doesn't seem to have made it into the OED, with the exception of Neves, which is defined as obsolete criminal slang.

The Inky Fool was sure of backing a winner


  1. Potentially apocryphal but I heard that 'carpet' for three is to do with being entitled to a carpet in your prison cell if you were serving more than three years.

    Anyway, a 33/1 shot can be referred to as a double carpet.

  2. carpet = carpet-bag, rhy. sl. for "drag" which was an 18thC term for three-month stretch.

    To car dealers, a carpet was £300. For bookies, it can also mean odds of 3-1

  3. Mark, I've just got hold of The Horologicon and am relishing my time in it. I'll feature it next week as a must-have Christmas gift for readers. Thanks for retaining your link to my website. I get quite a few visitors from it.

    BTW I wonder if online gamblers have code words of their own?

  4. Gambling is, in many ways, a subculture and supports its own jargon, idiom and sociolect. To what extent this is a 'code' is a point of discussion

    The online world is no different. Online poker communities certainly have their own vocabulary. For example, bad players are 'donks', tournaments full of poor players are thus 'donkaments' and to bet out post-flop under-the-gun (enough jargon for you there!) is termed a 'donk-lead'.

    Quick plug for my blog where you can find my work on medieval gambling subcultures:

  5. Surely the phrase (I just had) "a bottle or two" is and has been in frequent usage?