The secret languages of the underworld

The secret languages of the underworld
PHOTO: Reuters

Could you erectify a luxurimole flackoblots? Have you hidden your chocolate cake from Penelope? Or maybe you're just going to vada the bona omi?

If you understand any of these sentences, you speak an English "anti-language". Since at least Tudor times, secret argots have been used in the underworld of prisoners, escaped slaves and criminal gangs as a way of confusing and befuddling the authorities.

Thieves' Cant, Polari, and Gobbledygook (yes, it's a real form of slang) are just a few of the examples from the past - but anti-languages are mercurial beasts that are forever evolving into new and more vibrant forms.

A modern anti-language could very well be spoken on the street outside your house. Unless you yourself are a member of the "anti-society", the strange terms would sound like nonsense. Yet those words may have nevertheless influenced your swear words, the comedy you enjoy and the music on your iPod - without you even realising the shady interactions that shaped them.

One of the first detailed records of an anti-language comes from a 16th Century magistrate called Thomas Harman. Standing at his front door, he offered food and money to passing beggars in return for nothing more than words. "He would say 'either I throw you in prison or you give me your Cant,'" explains Jonathon Green, whose latest book is Language: 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue.

As Green points out, many slang words concern our basest preoccupations. "Slang may not represent us at our best, or our most admirable, but it represents us as human beings with anger, fear, self-aggrandisement, and our obsession with sex and bodily parts."

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