On yer jigger, Fat Owl of the Remove!

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The Independent Online
"Come on, Dad," said my son to me the other day, "let's get our jiggers out and go for a ride!"

"Our what?" I said. This was a new bit of slang I hadn't come across. My son is only eight but already he's coming up with stuff that leaves me flat-footed. Jiggers? Not a word I ever remember using.

"Jiggers means bicycles," he said, sounding a bit hurt at my forgetfulness. "Don't you remember? It was in that Billy Bunter book you're reading me."

He was right. I have been reading him a Billy Bunter book and jigger is used in it as a slang word for bicycle, and so we did get out our jiggers and go for a ride, so everything ended happily. Except, I suppose, that many a reader will frown at the source of this knowledge, so at a time when Enid Blyton is coming under fire I ought to justify my reading my own child anything as quaint, old-fashioned and politically incorrect as a Greyfriars story by Frank Richards.

It all came about because he had been listening to a Martin Jarvis tape of several Billy Bunter stories, and Martin Jarvis had made the whole Billy Bunter world come alive for him, as indeed Martin Jarvis can bring anything to life - Martin Jarvis could make the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett seem action-packed.

So my son wanted another fix of Billy Bunter. Had I got any Billy Bunter stories? he wanted to know. Well, no, I hadn't, but it so happened that I came across a Billy Bunter book in a second-hand bookshop a few days later. Billy Bunter's Benefit, it was called. It had been published in 1950 by Charles Skilton, a publisher whose name I don't think I had come across before, and it had been around the world, because there was a tiny sticker inside revealing that it had been through the hands of "Angus and Robertson, Booksellers to the University, 89 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, Australia". It was pounds 9. I bought it.

It has been a great investment because both my son and I have enjoyed the story tremendously - quite apart from all the eating, and fighting, and bicycle theft, and ragging and heaven knows what, it must be the only school novel in which two rival dramatic societies put on competing productions of Hamlet, though I don't think this last has appealed much to my son.

Bunter himself is no doubt the most villainous hero ever created; he is so greedy, mendacious, cowardly, lazy and manipulative that I cannot think of any redeeming features, which I suppose is why he is so winningly attractive.

And he has put a new word into my son's vocabulary: jigger.

If someone had asked me last week what it meant, I would have said (hesitantly) that it was either a measure of spirits ("a jigger of rum") or a kind of insect that gets under your toenails. But to discover that it is also a bicycle is unnerving.

Mark you, we have always been short of a slang word for bicycle in English. "Cycle" and "bike" are mere abbreviations, and anyway "bike" has been stolen by the motorbike people. If the French can have a slang word for bike, la becane, why can't we? Just asking ...

And now I have even looked up "jigger" in an array of dictionaries and found that jigger means more things than even Frank Richards dreamt of. It is also:-

1. A light lifting tackle used on ships;

2. A golf club, usually a 4 iron;

3. A 11/2 oz whisky measure;

4. A kind of sieve used for sifting ore;

5. Another word for a chigoe, the insect that burrows in your flesh;

6. A runabout truck on a a railway line (but only in New Zealand);

7. A device used when setting a gill net beneath ice (but only in Canada);

8. An old name for the stand or bridge used in snooker to rest your cue on when the cue ball is too far for comfort.

I think that's a wonderful word. It has more jobs than a Tory quango chairman, and does them all efficiently, I have no doubt. It would make a great quiz question - all you would have to do is read out some of those definitions, and then ask: "What is the word that means all those things?" And I would never have known all this had it not been for Billy Bunter.

So if anyone asks me in future to justify reading Billy Bunter stories, I shall say quietly: "I use them as a tool for enlarging my vocabulary. And I am not the only one. Did you realise they were widely on sale at Australian university bookshops in the 1950s?"