Gantville cowboys, Butterboys and Sandy McNabs – Jonathon takes a ride through the world of taxi jargon (but doesn’t, of course, go sarf of the river)…
I am in a cab. The cabbie asks what lies in store. I explain that he is taking me home, which in my case is also work. So he asks what work that might be and suggests that perhaps I write and I reply that yes I do, up to a point. And explain that what I write is dictionaries. Dictionaries, that is, of slang. And the cabbie, who stands for pretty much anyone with whom I have reached this far into such a conversation replies – and I could almost join him in chorus: ‘Oh, slang, eh? Apples and pears and all that.’
Herbert Hodge, he of last week’s philosophizing and propaganda, might have informed him otherwise. Cabbies, or at least some of the 22,000 members of the LTDA, learned acolytes of that Knowledge of whom we are all beneficiaries, have their own slang, although, as noted, since it stems from a closed, occupational group it is properly jargon. In this case it is taxi-speak, which seems to have existed since the mid-19th century. It is, one might suggest, the ultimate take on ‘London in Slang’.
Jargons, unlike slangs, are under-exploited in fiction though among such efforts are two of the most celebrated: Orwell’s Newspeak and Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat. And in his dystopian novel The Book of Dave (2006) Will Self’s language Mokni (no real relation to the homonymous mockney, an Eighties creation that has morphed into Estuary English) combines a phoneticized form of Cockney mixed with the slang of his eponymous protagonist, a London cabbie.
Hodge, plainest of plain speakers, would have surely dismissed mockni as simply weird, but he embraced the actual jargon of his fellow drivers and it is from his books that Eric Partridge abstracted most of the cab-speak with which he invested DSUE. In 2009 Stuart Pessok of Taxi magazine, looking largely to these two predecessors, put together a ten-page glossary of the cabbie’s lexis. It is divided into locations and buildings, ranks and shelters, drivers, cabs, passengers, the public carriage office (the knowledge and subsequent technicalities), money, the police and miscellaneous. Thus the cabbie universe.
The longest section – 4pp – is geographical: destinations and ranks. The latter seem diminished; where now the lines of cabs that marked The Ditch (Fleet Street), The Cold Blow (St Pancras) or Poor Man’s Corner (Trafalgar Square). All marked ‘former’ though maybe the new St. Pancras, vast of waiting queue, has been rechristened). The places too suggest a lost past. The punning (and disinformational) Bishopsgate: the Athenaeum wherein crowd the senior clergy; The Deaf and Dumb: the wartime ministry of information, The Flowerpot: Covent Garden market. Harley Street was The Resistance: as in fighting c. 1945 against the nascent NHS. The Dirty Dozen refers to twelve streets that take you from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road without using Oxford Street: Crossrail has seen that one off. It’s a long time since anywhere in Soho qualified, as once did Archer Street, as Poverty Corner, the poverty presumably being that of the musicians who sought work there, rather than the drug dealers who traded amongst them. The latest additions, like the latest rhyming slang, seem artificial, inorganic, forced. The Bindi (from the red dot that adorns Hindi foreheads) for the London Eye, The Wet Doughnut for the Diana memorial. If you say so, squire, if you say so.
Jargon proper comes from within: the drivers and the vehicles. A owner-driver has been a musher since the 1880s; the cab roof being equivalent to a mush, an umbrella. (America’s musher, a travelling vagrant, appears coincident.) The Gantville cowboys, predominantly Jewish cabbies who live around Gants Hill, Newbury Park, Ilford and Claybury. Copperarse: one who works long hours. Butterboy, a novice. Hodge suggests an influx of grocer’s assistants after the 1913 cab strike but it’s a police term too and more likely to be that butter that won’t melt in an innocent mouth. To suck the mop is to be left on a rank when everyone else has got jobs (literally trips, figuratively passengers). Ranking on a long ’un is driving around in search of fares and hanging it up waiting outside hotels, lights off, ready to jump on the Billy Bunters (punters; an old squirt is an ageing gent, a mystery a young woman). A shtumer, originally a bad cheque, is an booked job that on arrival has evaporated.
Money terms come nearest to slang orthodoxy, even if some have left the building: no more deaner, sprat or sprarzy: 6d., nor caser: 10/- though Harold or Wilson for a 50p coin and referring to the former Prime Minister’s duplicitiousness (his ‘many sides’) seems far more dated than the Victorianism which came from Yiddish kesef, silver and began ‘life’ as the silver five-shilling piece. The monkey (£500) and pony (£25) are ageless, though neither bends to a definite etymology. Then there are the rhymes: cock and hen, Huckleberry hound, Lady Godiva and Oxford scholar, but none are exclusive to cabbie-land. The meter has been a Zeiger (the maker’s name), a kettle (elsewhere a watch), a ticker (ditto), and a hickory, another rhyme, on clock.
The cab itself, better known as the flounder (and dab), sherbert (dab) and Sandy McNab, once appeared as fiacre, a borrowing from Paris, as was droshky from Moscow.) The police can be rozzers, probably from Romani roozlo, tough; gendarms, which looks again to France and flic which is pure argot. Old Bill, widely credited to Bruce Bairnsfeather’s World War I old sweat, may go back to a mid-19th century night watchman; Hodge also used him to mean a very profitable fare. Grass, usually an informer and rhyming with shopper (shop: to inform) is here linked to copper and is used for one. Among the rest is frarney, from rhyming slang France and Spain: rain, which can also be musher’s lotion, and hair dryer: a speed gun.
LTDA cabbies once called the minicab men touts or scabs if they were illegal and little people if not. Now their cars are big and shiny, determine themselves ‘private hire vehicles’ and pose as cut-price Amazon to challenge the traditionalists. Do Addison Lee’s drivers have their own jargon? Is any among them likely to collect it? It is unlikely that the fares care. The lexicographers do. Carry on Cabbie.