Green’s Heroes of Slang: 3. ‘Arry

Jonathon Green continues his ‘Heroes of Slang’ series

The essence of ’arry, he sez, is high sperrits. That ain’t so fur out.
I’m ‘Fiz’ not four ’arf, my dear feller. Flare-up is my motter, no doubt.
Carn’t set in a corner canoodling, and do the Q. T. day and night.
My mug, mate, was made for a larf, and you don’t ketch it pulling a kite.
I mean to romp round a rare buster, lark, lap, take the pick of the fun,
And, bottom or top, good or bad, keep my heye on one mark — Number One!

‘’Arry on His Critics’  Punch 17 Dec. 1887 

The word cockney appears in 1362: it meant a ‘cock’s egg’, i.e. a defective one. Around 1386 Chaucer used it for a mother’s darling; thence any milksop. Thence too the equation (as of 1521), presumably coined by self-regarding countrymen, of the weakling with the townsman. And in 1600 the final transformation: a Londoner born within the sound of Bow bells. 

The modern Cockney – working-class, East End, chirpy, sparrer-like – is a 19th century creation: prior to that he could be a wealthy tradesman. Only the geography mattered. Dickens cast him as Sam Weller, coster comedians and lions comiques paraded him at the music hall, and the ‘Cockney novelists’ – Pett Ridge, Morrison, Pugh – made him variously feisty, vicious or pathetic. 

And then came ‘Arry. E.J. Milliken’s bombastic Cockney grotesque, arriving in Punch in 1877 and strutting there for 20 years. The OED apostrophised him in 1889: ‘A low-bred fellow (who ‘drops his h’s’) of lively temper and manners.’  

’Arry comes on like a prototype chav, but he transcends the neds and the Kappa slappers in aspirations, social encounters and loudly voiced opinions: traditionalist, jingoistic and unashamedly conservative. For contemporaries he was a cad, from standard English cadet, but more immediately from Oxford slang, in which a cad was a townsmen: and as such incapable of becoming a gentleman. He sounds off in verse letters to his country friend ‘Charlie’, five or six per year. (Charlie achieved a single reply, in 1877, but that idea was dropped and all else is monologue). Millken-Frankenstein used his monster to sound off on a succession of issues, be they political, social, or simply views on such things as travel. ’Arry expatiated on class – seeing himself as the equal, if not in many ways the superiors of the ‘swells’ (‘Call me Cad? When money’s in the game, / Cad and Swell are potty much the same’), on dress (‘Yaller ulster and elbows well crook’d on the ‘igh-perlite pump-‘andle plan’), on ‘’ot and spicy entertainment’, on patriotism and on women, whom he loved, or at least flirted with, when in their place, and predictably despised when they turned too clever.  ’Arriet, a mirror-image girlfriend, occasionally made her own appearances, but ’Arry’s eye was always roving.  

Milliken described his creation thus: ‘’Arry […] is really appalling. He is not a creature to be laughed at or with. My main purpose was satirical — an analysis of and an attack on the spirit of Caddishness, rampant in our days in many grades of life, coarse, corrupting, revolting in all. […] As to ‘Arry’s origin, and the way in which I studied him, I have mingled much with working men, shop-lads, and would-be smart and “snide” clerks — who plume themselves on their mastery of slang and their general “cuteness” and “leariness.” The slang was ‘very varied, and not scientific, though most of it I have heard from the lips of street-boy, Bank-holiday youth, coster, cheap clerk, counterjumper, bar-lounger, cheap excursionist, smoking-concert devotee, tenth-rate suburban singer, music hall ‘pro’ or his admirer,” etc. etc.’ 

And slang is what makes our self-aggrandising anti-hero. On the boulevards of ‘Parry’, vandalising Stonehenge, trashing adverse criticism, or slapping down some threateningly feminist ‘blue’, his every stanza brims with a generous helping of the counter-language.   

’Arry had no doubts: slang came, like a number of habits that ‘toffs’ claimed to despise, from the bottom up:  

As to slang, and strong language, and so on, objections to them is all stuff;
What are they but anticipation — to-morrer’s swell-slang in the rough?
That the nobs prig their patter from ours you may see by their plays and their books,
And the lingo that’s used by fitzfoodle’s inwented by snobkins or snooks. 

And he is justifiably proud of his own contributions. In December 1887, in a riposte to an antagonistic  piece in the St James Gazette he informs his friend: 

Wot is slang, my dear boy, that’s the question. The mugs and the jugs never joke.
Never gag, never work in a wheeze; no, their talk is all skilly and toke,
But slang? Wy, it’s simply smart patter, of wich ony me and my sort ‘as the ‘ang.
Snappy snideness put pithy, my poppin, the pick of the chick and the hodd,
And it fettles up talk, my dear charlie, like ‘at hoyster sauce with biled cod

Three years later he was back celebrating his own facilities: 

’Tisn’t grammar and spellin’ makes patter, nor yet snips and snaps of snide talk.
You may cut a moke out o’  pitch-pine, mate, and paint it, but can’t make it walk.
You may chuck a whole Slang Dixionary by chunks in a stodge-pot of chat.
But if ’tisn’t alive, ’tain’t chin-music , but kibosh, and corpsey at that. 
Kerrectness be jolly well jiggered! Street slang isn’t Science, dear pal,
And it don’t need no ‘glossery’ tips to hinterpret my chat to my gal.
I take wot comes ’andy permiskus, wotevcr runs slick and fits in.
And when smugs makes me out a ’philolergist,’—snuffers! it do make me grin! 

‘Philolergist’ or not, the ballads are good for 1000 terms of ‘snappy snideness’ (although only two might qualify as rhyming). And the bulk were contemporary (even if in his ‘transcription’ Milliken allows the occasional anachronistic ‘w’ for ‘v’): if he had known a ‘Slang Dixionary’ it would have been Hotten’s 1859 effort or just possibly Barrère and Leland’s of 1889. But why disbelieve Milliken: he used what he had found, and there was a great deal. ’Arry would benefit, as would his readers, and in time, though he is lamentably under-used by contemporaries such as Farmer and Henley, so very gratefully would the lexicographers.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

9 thoughts on “Green’s Heroes of Slang: 3. ‘Arry

    July 7, 2011 at 20:57

    It’s fascinating reading, and surely I can’t be the only one who immediately thought of Harry enfield’s ‘loadsamoney’…

      July 7, 2011 at 21:33

      Or Frank Bruno.

    john halliwell
    July 7, 2011 at 21:24

    As I read this wonderful post, I experienced a strange, tingling sensation that stretched from the back of my throat to my teeth. At first I put it down to an Uncle Joe’s mint ball, then realised it was a consequence of stifling laughter. Well, you can’t disrupt the missus when she’s calculating how to spend £50 at Tesco just to redeem a £5 voucher.

    July 7, 2011 at 21:35

    Anyone want to own up to being a ‘cheap excursionist’?

      July 7, 2011 at 22:05

      Are there many cockneys left in Wapping or indeed cockney hackers. Another absorbing read Jonathon. Why are cockneys portrayed as villains? Tolkien, the trolls and their purse “‘ere, who’s that.” Or Kenneth Grahame’s stoats, “ere, who’s that”

      Favorite cockney song (abridged)

      Go away you bumble bee, I ain’t no rose
      Go away you bumble bee get of my f…..g nose
      I ain’t no syphilitic flower pot get of me f…..g nose

      Etc, etc.

      July 8, 2011 at 11:22

      No, but I’ve been a bar-lounger in my time.

      Great stuff, this – I’ve obviously been away from the Dabbler for far too long.

  4. Gaw
    July 8, 2011 at 10:35

    Doesn’t Dickens have his Cockneys replacing ‘v’ for ‘w’? JG, do you know how this pronunciation arose and when it died out completely?

      July 8, 2011 at 11:36

      You really need linguist for this. From what one can see the ‘v’ for ‘w’ thing seems to have been an early-mid-19th century phenomenon and as you say, featured by Dickens, especially in Sam Weller’s speech. But by the time of ‘Arry (1877-90) it had vanished and ‘Arry set the type for Cockney speech for a decade or so before his was replaced by the representations of Cockney in Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads, and by the Cockney novelists such as Arthur Morrison (Tales of Mean Streets), Clarence Rook (Hooligan Nights), William Pett Ridge (Mord Em’ly) etc. That Cockney is pretty much the same as it is today. That said, if you listen to a recording of Gus Elen, who pre-WWI starred in music hall as a coster, he seems more extreme, though that may have been part of the act. I’m not sure, for instance to what extent Elen’s enunciation of ‘gryte big shyme’ (i.e. ‘great big shame’) would still be heard today.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:44

    Hollywood’s take on the accent is interesting, we won’t mention Dick van Dyke or Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews or 101 dalmatians. I wonder where that came from.

    WH Auden didn’t have a cockney accent, did he? Stan Laurel was a Cumbrian, apparently, couldn’t have been him. Perhaps Cecil B DeMille spoke like Arthur Mullard, he and Hylda Baker bringing to the American musical a breath of the Old Kent rd.

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