LONDON'S East End said goodbye last week to the late Lenny McLean, the 20-stone bouncer, prize-fighter and author, with a nice old-fashioned funeral, plumed horses and all. The Independent celebrated the occasion with a nice old-fashioned headline: "East End send-off for a `real diamond geezer'". Geezer is a word you don't often hear now, west of Aldgate Pump.

A geezer is just a person, the cockney term for someone who elsewhere might be a bloke, a customer, a character, a cove or a guy, depending on where you're from and who you're with. Like customer and character, it seems to attract an adjective of some sort, such as cool for customers or shady for characters - perhaps old for geezers, if not the interesting diamond of the Independent's story. But it is not entirely clear why cockneys should want to call someone a geezer.

The Oxford English Dictionary says: "Applied especially to men, usually but not necessarily elderly", but then calls it "a term of derision", citing in support the standard 1893 Northumberland dialect dictionary that says: "Geezer, a mummer, and hence any grotesque or queer character". It is a long way from Northumberland to Bethnal Green, but the OED could be right. As it points out, guiser was a 15th-century word for a masquerader, or someone who went disguised, and not only in the North. Hardy used it in this sense in The Return of the Native. Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang agreed with the OED, but his later editor, Paul Beale, thought it might have been picked up by our soldiers in the Peninsular War from giza, the Basque for a man. Take your pick from these two elegant theories.

There is a passage in Brighton Rock, quoted in the OED, that supports the "term of derision" definition, when someone calls Pinkie a "bloody little geezer". Graham Greene may not have known much about Brighton, but he had a good ear. However, someone else calls Pinkie "a grand little geezer", which puts us back where we were. There is certainly no derision about it any more. I doubt if many people dared to deride Lenny McLean.

And diamond? Well, he was a hard man, and pretty bright. And he was worth a lot.

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