DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE

Jeff Howell gets himself into a bit of a slanging match
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The Independent Online
There Has been a remarkable response to last week's column about drink - or rather to the bit about monetary units used in negotiating deals with builders. It seems that slang terms for cash are a recurring source of misunderstanding, especially between working-class builders and middle-class punters. Obviously, when Karl Marx was sat in the central reading room of the British Library, composing his ideas for Das Kapital, this was the chapter he didn't get around to writing. Or perhaps he did, and his editor decided to cut it out - some things never change.

Anyway, here is the missing chapter, entitled "Building Economics - or how to decipher what your builder means when he says he'll do your drains for a one-er".

Starting with last week's list of cash sums, the score and the ton should have been self-explanatory, at least to anyone who was at school before 1979. The nifty-fifty is clearly Cockney rhyming slang. It was the pony and the monkey which generated most attention. The pounds 25 pony is derived, of course, from Mammoth, Britain's largest ever Shire Horse, which was owned by Mr Thomas Cleaver of Toddington Mill, Beds, and which was measured in 1846, allegedly, at 25 hands. This created a bit of a stir in the press at the time and, since "25 hands" sounds like "25 pounds" (well, it does if you say it a Hollywood-style Cockney accent) it came into general use for that sum.

The pounds 500 monkey is more recent in origin. Bukhama, Britain's largest gorilla, lived in Dudley Zoo from 1960 to 1969, and weighed - yes, you've guessed it - 500 pounds. So there you go. Many thanks to Bethnal Green Eddie, carpenter and roofer of this parish, for research on this important topic, for, although the terms are in common use, not many people know or care about, their origin.

Another cash sum you might hear mentioned includes a one-er, which is generally pounds 100, but which can sometimes be short-hand for pounds 1000. More usual terms for pounds 1000 are a grand, a big one, and a k (pronounced "kay" - do not confuse with a ki, pronounced "key", which is used, allegedly, in drug deals to denote a kilogram).

Car dealers, by the way, have their own monetary system, and deal in hundreds. So your old Volvo, which has a book price of pounds 4200, will be worth "42 hundred", or simply "42", with or without its antique dealer's roof rack. Roll on European Monetary Union, I say.

But what other slang words would it be useful to know in order to steal a march on your builder? To a certain extent all trade terms are slang, or jargon, traditionally used to exclude outsiders from the conversation. There is a school of social anthropology which defines the old craft apprenticeships as initiation rites, during which the (illiterate) trainees were taught the secret words which described parts of buildings. This process sometimes reached absurd extremes, as with stone masonry, which evolved into the even greater absurdity of freemasonry. But all the trades have their own words for things, including themselves. Bricklayers are called trowels - hence adverts for brickies specify that "fast, clean trowels only need apply". Brickies' labourers are called hods. Plasterers are known as spreads, carpenters as chippies, and electricians are sparks. Plumbers are called all sorts of things, mainly because they never turn up when they're supposed to, and when they do, they then have to go away to fetch a part from a special place in Dagenham, which takes another three days.

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