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Authors: Noel "Razor" Smith

The Criminal Alphabet

BOOK: The Criminal Alphabet
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Noel ‘Razor' Smith



The Out

1. The Language of Crime

2. Going Equipped for Crime

3. Transport

4. Working the Con


5. Get Your Strides On, Chummy, You're Nicked!

Doing Bird

6. The Language of the Greybar Hotel

7. Prison Violence

8. Drop Me Out, You Lemon!

9. Drugs

Giving It All That

10. Old Bill, Persians and Rabbiting the Script


Follow Penguin

This book is dedicated to the memories
of Bernadette Mary Smith, Joseph Stephen Smith, Elizabeth Christine McClean, Edward
Joseph Regan and my old mate Rockin' Oz. Never forgotten.


I have spent almost thirty-three of the
last fifty-four years in and out of prison, but mainly in. I was a juvenile offender
back in the mid-1970s and went on to become an adult prisoner in the 1980s and
beyond. My shortest prison sentence was seven days (for criminal damage) and my
longest sentence was life (for bank robbery and possession of firearms). I have
fifty-eight criminal convictions, for everything from attempted theft to armed
robbery and escape from prison, and I was a career criminal for most of my life.
What I do not know about criminal and prison slang could be written on the back of a
postage stamp and still leave room for the Lord's Prayer.

For example, take the word ‘slang'
itself. It's a mix of the words ‘secret' and ‘language' and perfectly encapsulates
the whole reason for slang. Slang has always been a way of communicating in secret,
a way to exclude the uninitiated, so it is particularly useful for criminals, who,
by the very nature of their deeds, must keep secrets from the police and the general
public. A large portion of criminal slang is either rhyming slang (sometimes
referred to as cockney rhyming slang, because it's thought that it was invented by
the people of the East End of London in the 1840s) or a corruption of it, and market
and street traders as well as criminals from all over the UK tend to use it.

It's said a cockney is somebody who was
born within the sound of Bow Bells, and some people believe this refers to the area
of Bow in the East End of London. The saying actually refers to the bells of St
Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside. There was a church on this site over a thousand years ago,
and later versions were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then
bombed by the Luftwaffe during
the Blitz of 1941. The bells of St
Mary-le-Bow fell silent on 13 June 1940 and didn't ring again until 1961, therefore
during this time no ‘true' cockney could be born. I was born in the old Charing
Cross Hospital on the Strand on 24 December 1960, as they were transporting the new
bells to St Mary-le-Bow, and I like to think that if those bells made any sound at
all during this time then I am possibly the only true cockney born in the twenty-one
years that the bells were otherwise silent. Perhaps that's why I've always liked
rhyming slang.

The use of rhyming slang, in particular,
is usually misunderstood by amateur practitioners. The whole idea is to exclude the
casual listener, so it's always best to be concise. For example, if I were to say in
conversation that ‘I was going down the frog and toad in my jam jar when I got a
John Bull from the
ducks and geese
because I don't have any
beeswax' I would be using rhyming slang. But it wouldn't take a genius to break that
particular code (‘I was going down the road in my car when I got a pull from the
police because I don't have any road tax'). The same statement but using only the
first part of each phrase would be much harder to crack: ‘I was going down the frog
in my jam when I got a John from the ducks because I don't have any bees.' This is
the way rhyming slang is intended to be used. It's so extensively spoken, even
today, that some slang words and phrases have more than one meaning, which is why
context is so important. Take ‘bees', for instance. In the example above, ‘bees' is
slang for ‘tax', as in beeswax = tax. But ‘bees' is also rhyming slang for ‘money',
as in bees and honey = money. A better example of how one slang word can have many
different meanings is the word ‘bottle'. The original rhyming slang is ‘Aristotle'
(a Greek philosopher) = ‘
'. So the words ‘aris' or ‘bottle'
can mean ‘arse' (but a later rhyming slang
is bottle and glass =
‘arse'). It can also mean ‘courage', or lack of it (‘He's got no bottle'); to follow
someone or be behind them (‘He's on your bottle'); the action of smashing someone
over the head with a glass bottle (‘He got two years for bottling a geezer in the
pub'); pick-pocketing (‘to be out on the bottle'); and a hiding place (up the anus)
for criminal contraband (‘He's got five grams of heroin bottled').

Some time ago I was telling a friend of
mine (who has never been a criminal) a ‘joke'
and he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Looking bewildered, he asked
what a skaghead was, and I had to explain that a skaghead is a heroin addict and a
crackhead is someone addicted to crack cocaine. This made me think about how little
the ordinary person in the street knows about criminal, drug or prison slang. Words
and phrases I've taken for granted all of my life are like a foreign language to the
vast majority of people. Ignorance of this sort of slang may not affect the ordinary
man or woman in the street – ‘straight-goers', as they're known by criminals – but
sometimes a misunderstanding of such language can lead to dangerous or frightening
situations. Many years ago a street-trader friend of mine was selling overpriced
cigarettes and cold drinks at an open-air reggae concert on Clapham Common, and got
into an argument with a man who objected to paying £5 for a can of lukewarm lemonade
fished out of a plastic dustbin full of water in the back of a van. After words were
bandied back and forth for a few minutes my pal decided to give the man a
fifty-pence refund to shut him up. Business was good and there was no shortage of
‘tobys' (Toby jug = mug) willing to shell
out for his goods, so he
just wanted the man to leave his pitch. He realized that he didn't have any loose
change on him and shouted to me to ‘get the rifle out of the bag in the front of the
van so I can pay this fucking idiot out'. I moved swiftly to comply but noticed a
look of abject fear cross the customer's features as he backed away from the pitch.
I watched in amazement as he dropped his can of lemonade and pegged (‘pegged' is a
slang word made popular by an old music-hall ditty called ‘Jake the Peg', about a
three-legged man) it across the common and into the crowd as fast as his legs would
carry him. Me and my pal looked at each other and burst out laughing. We both
realized why he'd bolted. He thought I was going to pull a rifle from the van and
shoot him for arguing! In fact, my pal had been asking me to get the money bag with
the loose change in it from the footwell. In rhyming street-trader slang the word
‘rifle' means ‘change', as in rifle range = change. The poor sap thought he was
going to get shot, all over fifty pence!

The above story shows how a simple
misunderstanding in language can cause a bit of ‘agg' for the unwary. Even for the
experienced face, or
, criminal slang changes so quickly that
mistakes can inadvertently be made. So even though this book will be as
up-to-the-minute as I can possibly make it, some words and phrases will still be out
of fashion by the time you read it. New rhyming slang is really dependent on popular
culture and what happens to be in vogue on the day. For example, a few years ago
James Blunt was a particularly popular singer and, for a while, both the female
genitalia and a stupid person were being called a ‘
' …
I'm sure you can work it out for yourself. Some celebrities fall out of vogue and
the connection of their name to rhyming slang becomes lost in the mists of time. At
one time, trainers were known as ‘
' (‘Nice
pair of Claires, mate') after the late
Daily Mirror
agony aunt Claire
Raynor. With all the changes it goes through, the study of rhyming slang is never
going to be an exact science.

A lot of criminal and prison slang is
obscure, and false etymologys are given for some slang words and phrases. For
example, many people say that the word ‘kettle', meaning a watch, comes from the
phrase ‘kettle of scotch', which was supposedly a measure of scotch. But I've never
been able to find ‘kettle' being used as a measurement of whisky or any other
alcoholic beverage. I prefer to believe the explanation I got from an old cockney
villain whom I met during my first incarceration, in Wormwood Scrubs back in the
early 1980s, which is that early watches were carried in a suit or jacket pocket
(wristwatches didn't come into use until the 1920s) known as the ‘fob' pocket, so
such watches were called ‘fob watches' or ‘fobs'. So the rhyming slang for a watch
became ‘kettle' (kettle and hob = fob), a hob being where you put your kettle to
heat the water in it). But there are some people who will swear blind to this day
that the rhyming slang for watch is ‘kettle of scotch'. Incidentally, the word
‘kettle' for watch is still used a lot in certain circles today. Bear in mind when
you're reading what follows that when I'm not completely sure of the etymology of
certain words and phrases I've gone with what I consider to be the most likely and
logical choice.

I'm no language expert. What I know
mainly comes from the practical experience of using slang in my everyday life. In
the criminal and prison worlds slang is just another tool for survival, another
safeguard for the cautious, who rightly believe that someone may be listening in and
hoping to take advantage, sometimes to the cost of their liberty. Being a resident
of what the more lurid tabloids love to call ‘the underworld' meant that I got to
hear and use criminal slang from all over the UK and beyond.
Criminals don't play at using slang; it's an integral part of their world and so
common as mostly to go unnoticed by the people who speak it. I've always loved
slang, loved hearing about the origins of a word or phrase, and if I heard something
that was new to me, I'd make it my business to find out how it had come about. Of
course, I was no student or academic, and the idea of researching anything – other
than the details of my next bank job, that is – was anathema to me. If I wanted to
know something about a slang word or phrase, I'd go straight to the knowledgeable
people in my world and ask them for an explanation. After all, the people who were
using this language on a daily basis were ideally situated to answer my queries.
That's why you'll find no real ‘evidence' cited for the etymology I give a word or
phrase, no names of authors who've written about slang, for example, because I
haven't read any of their books. This is what
know about slang – the
language I've used all my life. I don't need the internet, Google or Wikipedia to
tell me about it; it's my second language. Many people look up slang words on the
internet and, though I imagine what they find there might be interesting, there's
also a lot of ‘ollocksbay' (back slang for ‘bollocks'; back slang is a simple slang
once called pig Latin, in which the first letter of the word is transferred to the
end of the word and an ‘ay' sound is added) written by people who don't really
understand slang. An example is the explanation of ‘
', meaning
a sex offender, you find on Wikipedia (the one word I did look up on the internet,
just to see if anyone had the right explanation). It mentions that the etymology for
‘nonce' is unknown but that it's believed to be a corruption of ‘nancy boy', as in
‘nance'. Excuse me while I wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes! The word ‘nonce'
originated in Wakefield Prison in the 1900s. Before every prison had a ‘protection
for sex offenders and others who might be in danger from their
fellow prisoners, these undesirables would be kept on the same wings as the other
prisoners but could only be let out of their cells when the other cons were locked
up to protect them from being injured. The staff would mark their door card with the
acronym NONCE (Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise) so that unwary staff would not open
the doors of the sex offenders' cells while those of the rest of the prison
population were unlocked. As far as I'm concerned, this is the true etymology of

It isn't only rhyming slang that I
concern myself with here. Criminal and prison slang is an eclectic mix of words,
dialects and languages. These days, the slang you hear on prison landings and among
young gang members is likely to be a mix of American street slang and West Indian
(in particular, Jamaican) patois.The modern young criminal will chat about
, jacking and
man dem
, just as their
predecessors used to ‘rabbit' about ‘dosh', blagging and
. On
a recent visit to a young offender prison to speak to the YPs about writing and
language, I was asked by one of the USLAs (prisoners under school-leaving age) how
he could make paper from writing. When I told him that he'd need a lot of discipline
and to do a lot of hard work, he got a bit
and told me he would
rather get his ‘strap' and ‘move someone up'. I replied that he didn't look
enough to be chatting that kind of ‘coup'. The
conversation became a bit heated, and he got ‘screwface' and started ‘getting all up
in my grille', so I had to‘step up' and put the ‘kibosh' on the ‘convo'. As you can
imagine, the screws were getting worried, as they couldn't understand a word we were
saying! But if you read the rest of this book you'll understand perfectly.

While the modern young criminal mainly
prefers American and West Indian words and slang, they can't
but also use some of what has gone before, such as rhyming slang, back slang,
Romani, Yiddish and variations on their own geographical dialect. Mixed in with the
modern slang are old favourites that never seem to go out of fashion. A lot of
Romany Gypsy words are still in use, the prime example these days being ‘chav',
which means ‘boy' but has come to mean something entirely different to different
sets of people. Gypsies and old cockneys still use ‘chav' in its original meaning,
as in ‘Ah, he's a good chav' or ‘I need a few quid to get a present for my chav's
birthday'. Other people now use it to describe young people from the ‘lower
classes', and the ‘lower class' youths use it to describe a certain mode of dress
and behaviour. But ‘in the death', it just means ‘boy'.

BOOK: The Criminal Alphabet
4.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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