Dreams and Liars


Jonathon is amongst the dreaming spires this week, as he considers Oxfordian slang…

I was in Oxford yesterday. Waiting for my train home I noticed that the marketing boys and girls have been in and that the old place is now labelled the city of ‘learning and culture’ which is I suppose a little harder-edged and 21st century than Matthew Arnold’s evocation of ‘dreaming spires’ and in any case as I recall the first one of those that looms into the gaze as one arrives stands atop of Nuffield, and lacking beauty is a construction more of nightmares than of scholarly fantasy. Oxford elicits mixed memories. I arrived in 1966, probably as clever as I would ever be, but ill-formed and compensatorily noisy as we often are and hard-wired to the use of verbal facility as both defence and  self-definition. Walking down Broad Street in a grey drizzle and a dark blue suit and recalling sunny dawns in grey velvet with a head still full of…whatever had kept me going through the nights of 45 years past, I wondered how much we ever change.

At which point MEGO even if yours don’t, and I shall move on. There is enough boue in the daily round to obviate the need to mix in nostalgie.

Oxford doubtless produced much slang, some of which, in the way of student coinages, will have been imported from school, and some created in situ. I do not recall very much in the late Sixties. Various thoroughfares were gelded of the suffix ‘street’ and in compensation prefaced with definite article, and there may have been the odd hangover as regarded nicknames for university or college officials. I cannot recall them and none were neologisms. What my coterie used was hippie stuff, which meant the ersatz adoption of 1930s African-American jazz terms, by now more than a little tattered; not, as I have admitted elsewhere, that most of us knew.

As I noted for my first Hero of Slang; Cuthbert Bede, who portrayed the mid-century Oxford freshman in his Adventures of Mr Verdant Green (1853), there had always been plenty of slang about. Verdant and his friend Mr Bouncer duly bantered to and fro, but at least some of their lexis seemed to have been borrowed from Tom and Jerry’s friend Bob Logic, he of the green specs and a fatal taste for what in 1821 Pierce Egan has termed Life in London. Whatever it was, we are not seeing what would now be called ‘campus slang’, an often transatlantic subset which was first catalogued in B.H. Hall’s College Words (1856).

Nor is there a single example of the one slang that Oxford undoubtedly popularised: the –er suffix. The one that still lingers on in rugger and fresher, but not in those absurdities that an American visitor wrote up in an edition of the Atlanta Constitution in April 1912: ‘Guest at a cupper last night. No brekker. Tried to keep a lekker at John’s, but got no farther than the Maggers’ Memugger when I felt queer […] The wagger-pagger-bagger’s simply overflowing with bills […] Heard that the Pragger-Wagger is coming up?’ In 1936 H.L. Mencken, German by ancestry and sternly Anglophobe by conviction, summed it all up as: ‘a series of childish perversions of common and proper nouns, effected by adding -er or inserting gg.’

J. Redding Ware, author of Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909) dated its emergence to ‘early in the Queen’s [i.e. Victoria’s] reign’. Its absence from Verdant  Green as well as from Arnold’s Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) militate against that, though Bede at least, who had no first-hand knowledge of the university, may simply have missed it. The OED is very specific, claiming that it was ‘introduced from Rugby School into Oxford University slang, originally at University College, in Michaelmas Term, 1875.’ Unfortunately the OED fails to offer an 1875 citation, its first example being 1899: perhaps its ongoing revision will amend the absence. Meanwhile I cannot so far find one before 1892.

Strictly jargon, given its use at Oxford (it never caught on at Cambridge or elsewhere), it has moved into wider areas, typically fresher, a university freshman, footer, football, soccer, football and rugger, rugby. The extreme uses, e.g. pragger-wagger, the Prince of Wales and wagger-pagger-bagger, a waste-paper basket remain strictly Oxford and 1900s–20s Oxford at that. The double-g expansion tends to proper names, e.g. the Internagger  Brigagger, the International Brigade or The Tagger Ragger of St Pagger le Bagger: the Rev. Talbot Rice, rector of St Peter le Bailey c. 1890. Still, it also provides condagger magger, condensed milk, and forgogger coclogger, a foregone conclusion. None, one feels, had wide circulation and of the last four terms google, usually so verbose, is wholly silent.

For a fuller discussion of what he terms ‘the famous, or perhaps one should say, notorious, suffix’ we need Morris Marples who published a dictionary of University Slang in 1950; it was a sequel to his Public School Slang of 1940. He suggests the importation came not from Rugby but from Harrow. There it had been used to create slangy formations of nouns by shortening the original and replacing the missing letters with –er. When the word was a monosyllable, this could be extended by the suffixes –agger or –ugger. He notes an Old Harrovian who had entered the school in 1884 and explained that ‘We had the habit of putting –er at the end of a word, and either making the word shorter or longer, no matter which, so long as we got the –er for common use.’ Another Harrovian, who went up to Oxford that year recalled finding the -er already in place. However Marples can also quote The Harrovian, the school magazine, for April 1870, which lists six –er words and as he says, ‘we may be sure that others, not mentioned, were also current.’ Slang being what it is, we can never really ‘be sure’ but even if there were only six terms, that undoubtedly predates Oxford.

The story is not yet done. A further list, culled from the OED, finds a variety of terms, the first of which six-pounder, a maid-servant, thus christened from her usual wage per annum, is found in 1780, beating both educational institutions. Thus, Marples suggests, whether Harrow or Oxford was the earlier adopter, it was adoption, of ‘a popular tendency rather than inventing something new.’

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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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.

8 thoughts on “Dreams and Liars

  1. jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
    John Halliwell
    February 28, 2013 at 11:35

    This is helpful, Jonathon, I now have background as to why Test Match Special commentators Johnston, Agnew and Blofeld are more commonly known as Johnners, Aggers and Blowers. I bet it was the late and lamented Johnners (New College, Oxford) who kicked it off, or kicked it offers. The closest I got to an Oxford college was when I parked illegally down a side street close to the city centre, and a lumbering, dishevelled, traffic warden, whose nickname was probably ‘Roughers,’ said something along the lines of: “Oi, you, shift it, or we’ll put a clamper on it !”

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      February 28, 2013 at 13:42

      Cricket nicknaming has very much moved from -ers to -y. Recent England sides have been blessed with a surfeit of monosyllabic players who lend themselves to the form. Swanny and Broady leading the bowling attack of course, but the batting line-up was surely unprecedentedly monosyllabic: Straussy, Cooky, Trotty and Belly (with only KP, as ever, disrupting things).

      • Jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
        John Halliwell
        February 28, 2013 at 16:21

        Yes, of course. I suppose the most notable of the recent ers was Athers, but he was Cambridge.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      February 28, 2013 at 15:37

      I would imagine that Johnners was indeed the guilty party. The others are surely too young to have been exposed (in any case Blofeld was at the other place and Aggers wasn’t at either) and even in Johnston’s time the usage was (mercifully) fading.

  2. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    February 28, 2013 at 16:44

    Oddly enough, I too was in Oxford yesterday. We probably crossed paths in the Broa – sorry, in Broad Street, along which I walked to the Clarendon Building to renew my Bodleian Library reader’s card. Here I encountered not, perhaps, slang, but a bit of Oxford jargon. Introducing myself in the Bodleian Admissions Office as ‘a member of the university’ who wanted to renew his card, it was quickly established that, as a mere graduate of the university who neither works nor studies there these days, I’m not a ‘member of the university’ tout court, but ‘an inactive member of the university’. This elicited guffaws from a member of staff behind a screen. An ‘inactive member’: what could that possibly imply?

  3. info@ShopCurious.com'
    February 28, 2013 at 22:45

    Not wishing to create a slanging match, but how about a post on the other place, Jonathon?

    And does anyone have any predictions for future cities of ‘learning and culture’ – Salford, perhaps?

    • Worm
      March 1, 2013 at 08:56

      I’m sure my children will probably be enrolled at Westfield Stratford Uni™

  4. Gaw
    March 1, 2013 at 11:10

    I’m not sure the -er suffix never caught on in Cambridge: the inter-college sporting tournaments are referred to as ‘cuppers’ and the people who clean the rooms are called ‘bedders’.

    One thing I found strange about Oxbridge slang is why there isn’t an Oxford version of ‘Tab’, the pejorative term for a Cambridge student.

    Re sporting nicknames I am fond of the -o suffix. I knew a cricket player, Mark Middleton who was referred to as ‘Middlo’. Then there’s ‘Johnno’ (Martin Johnson). It seems to inhabit the middle ground between the archaic -er and contemporary -y.

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