Miles Kington: The exotic allure of verbal bric-a-brac

I was pleased to learn that a 'Cockney's breakfast' meant 'brandy or gin with soda water'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have been browsing through the magnificent new edition of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, edited by Jonathon Green. He was on Start the Week on Monday to talk about the book, in other words, to try to get us all to buy it, and when he agreed readily with someone's suggestion that most slang is about sex, drink, drugs and violence, I thought I would check it out.

He was right. I felt quite pale after a while at the endless catalogue of things we do to each other, and (where drink is concerned) to ourselves, the countless insults we hurl at each other and the racial nicknames we think up, and after a while I started looking for something a bit milder. It took some doing. I was passingly pleased to learn that a "Cockney's breakfast" means "brandy or gin with soda water", and that "Gravesend sweetmeats" meant "shrimps", but it is going to be useless for me to start using either of these terms as nobody will understand them, because Jonathon Green tells us that they have not been used since the mid-19th century.

Actually, I think it would be useless to learn words out of a dictionary in any case. That is not how we learn words. I have often come across unknown, exotic and alluring words in dictionaries, and have fallen in love with them and promised to take them out in society and introduce them to my friends, but I have never done so. That's not the way it works.

The way it works is that you come across a word, in a book, or in conversation, and you don't know it, and you either feel ashamed of yourself or you get mocked by your friends, so you look it up and put it aside for another day.

One source of new words for me, for a while, was the works of SJ Perelman. He would pick them up in old bric-a-brac shops, dust them off and parade them in his pieces. That's how, many years ago, I came across "pinguid". If Perelman knew it, I had better know it, so I looked it up and found it was another word for "oily". I already had other words for "oily". Like "greasy" and "oleaginous". That meant that if I used "pinguid" at all, it would be batting at No 4, but I liked the sound of "pinguid", so I adopted it and I still intend to use it one day.

(Liking the sound of a word can be misleading, though. There was a character in one of Aldous Huxley's early novels who fell in love with the word "carminative". He thought it meant something alluring like "lyrical", or "mellifluous". He only found out near the end of the book that it meant "laxative". He was greatly abashed. I don't know why. No one else knew what it meant, either. )

Yes, it's only by using words that you get to know them. I once asked Robert Robinson about his experiences on Call My Bluff, where every week he had had delicious and exotic but unknown words paraded past him, and wanted to know if he had ever picked out any for his personal use.

"Not a single one, dear boy," he said. "Nary a one."

When I was at school in Scotland, I picked up a few Scots swords, like "cleg" for "horsefly" and "pluke" for "pimple" or "spot". Both excellent words, and occasionally I use them, to general incomprehension. I was also taught that the name Menzies is pronounced "Mingus", which is the way I still automatically say it, and some funny looks it gets me in southern England, too.

But the only English slang word I can remember acquiring in recent years is one I picked up from ace cameraman Nick Lera when we were filming the Great Railway Journeys series. We were in some particularly smelly part of a Peruvian slum, and he said to me after he had finished a shot: "God - it don't half bugle here!"

"Bugle?" I said.

"Stink," he said.

"Why not say 'stink'?" I said. "Why say 'bugle'?"

"Rhyming slang," he said. " 'Bugle and drum'. 'Drum' rhymes with 'hum'. 'Hum' means 'to smell'. Didn't you know that?"

No, I didn't. And I have never met anyone else who knew this expression. With the sole exception of my son, Adam. And I taught it to him. So it was with some excitement that I turned to the new Cassell's Dictionary of Slang for authentication.

They haven't got it. They've got "bugle" meaning "cocaine" and "nose" and "a loud voice" but not meaning "to smell".

Was my leg being pulled all those years ago in Peru?

Over to you, Jonathon Green.

Comments