The word on the street

31st October 2003 at 00:00
From snazzy to sick, playground vernacular is a constantly shifting branch of English that baffles anyone over 16. Fifty years after the first attempt to make sense of slang, a new dictionary aims to chronicle the subtleties of teen talk. Beezer geezer David Newnham reports

In 1959, when folklorists Iona and Peter Opie published their classic work The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, few would have argued with a remark that appeared in the preface. "The curious lore passing between children aged about six to 14, which today holds in its spell some seven million inhabitants of this island, continues to be almost unnoticed by the other six-sevenths of the population."

In the pregnant silence between the Second World War and the international youth revolution, when little boys and girls, though seen and heard, were seldom listened to, the idea of spending the best part of a decade questioning 5,000 schoolchildren about their language must indeed have seemed strange. But that's precisely what the Opies did. And their book, nine years in the making, became a standard work.

Almost half a century on, children's language comes at us from all directions, as everyone from musicians and film-makers to broadcasters and politicians fall over themselves to talk the teenage talk.

Yet for all the sound and fury - the self-conscious market-speak of merchant banks and telephone companies that incorporates terms such as "cool" and "wicked", and the embarrassing attempts by parents to keep up with the latest meanings of "sad", "pants" and "gay" - the language of the proverbial playground has continued largely unrecorded.

Until, that is, a Welshman, surfing the internet from his computer in Sydney, hit on the idea of compiling a living dictionary of kidspeak.

On the face of it, Chris Lewis is an unlikely heir to the scholarly Opies.

Born and raised in Caerphilly, he left the local boys' grammar and technology school in the mid-1960s with little enthusiasm for grammar or technology, and headed for London "to be a beatnik".

Three decades later, having tried his hand at everything from taxi-driving to educational psychology, he found himself in Australia, married to a woman with a well-paid job, and living the life of a lotus eater. It was while roaming the nascent internet that he stumbled on a quirky website which contained something that appealed to the collector in him.

"I've had an interest in ephemera for 40 years, and have always collected odd words and bits of paper," he explains. "Then I came across somebody's home page, and in the middle of this mass of information about Led Zeppelin and all the other things he was interested in, this guy had started to put together a list of kids' slang. So I wrote to him and said, 'That's a good idea. If you ever get fed up with using it, let me have it'. Three days later, he handed me the password and told me to get on with it."

The list Chris inherited contained no more than 30 words, and to these he was able to add another 60 from memory. But with the help of a friend, he converted the site into a receiving centre for contributions from around the English-speaking world. And so the Online Dictionary of Playground Slang was born.

Three years ago, the site was listed by the Yahoo! search engine, at which point it took off. Today, it has around 3,500 entries, and next week Allison amp; Busby publishes The Dictionary Of Playground Slang in book form, incorporating material from the site, plus an appendix on playground games.

Unlike the Opies, whose book is heavy on commentary, Chris has been content to let the words speak for themselves, simply adding contextual notes where these have been supplied by contributors. "I can't claim to be an academic or a linguist," he says.

But, like the Opies, he believes this ephemeral material ought to be collected and preserved for posterity. "It is oral history, and something we don't want to lose. It might appear in one area, be used for eight months and then disappear. Unless someone is there to write it down, it is lost forever."

Although Chris decided to omit offensive racist terms from the dictionary, much of the content is of such a colourfully sexual nature that he has added an "adults-only" warning, "even though many of the terms quoted have been used by quite young children".

And it doesn't take a qualified linguist to see that the language of the playground has moved on since the Opies' day, due largely to the information revolution that had barely begun when they were collecting.

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren is a celebration of continuity.

Sceptics told the Opies their survey was 50 years too late, that two world wars and the increasing influence of "the cinema, the wireless, and television" (note that television still took third place in 1959) would have erased all but a trace of the traditional chants and sayings of the playground. The couple understandably took some delight in proving them wrong.

By contrast, Chris Lewis's collection of slang demonstrates the extent to which playground culture, like childhood itself, has become open to outside influence, sucking in the language of film, radio and television, as well as that great universal chatroom that is the internet.

It is a window on a world in which novelty, rather than tradition, rules - where today's compliment becomes tomorrow's insult as the forces of reaction and counter-reaction spin ever faster. And, above all, it is a celebration of inventiveness.

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, and a TES contributor (see review, right) has long been interested in the relationship between local idiom and imported slang among pupils, having taught at schools in Leeds and York before moving to East Anglia. "There's a funny mixture now," he says. "Children here in Suffolk are using what could be Harlem ghetto talk, yet dialect words are alive and kicking."

It's the sheer creativity of much playground slang that he finds refreshing. "Slang is so inventive. It uses brilliant metaphors, calling sausages 'mystery bags', for instance. And at a time when schools, government and the media are all talking about benchmarks, assessments, pilots, targets, focus, initiatives and strategies, it's good to have words that conjure up such vivid images.

"It also moves on very quickly, so the sort of slang words I used as a kid will have been supplanted endlessly."

It is hardly surprising, he says, that slang is alive and thriving with young people. "It's not only that it often deals with taboo subject matter; it is also a way of defining the social group you belong to. Few of us over 40 can say "cool" without looking seriously nerdy. Yet I teach bright, articulate sixth-formers who say to each other, without irony, "keep it real" and "bigging it up". The message, of course, is, 'Hey, we're young and have something in common'."

Mr Barton teaches A-level English language and says the dynamics of slang is always the most popular topic among his Year 12 students. Will he be referring them to the Online Dictionary of Playground Slang?

"Definitely. It's fantastic. And it would be good if schools started collecting the kind of language that's being used in their vicinity and comparing it with other schools."

The Dictionary of Playground Slang is published by Allison amp; Busby, pound;7.99. The online edition is on The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie, first published by Oxford University Press, is available from NYRB Classics, pound;9.99. Hopscotch: an exhibition of games will be at Marischal Museum, Broad Street, Aberdeen, until November 7. Admission free, Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Sunday 2-5pm.

Tel: 01224 274305


From The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959

Playing wag, bobbing, fagging off Playing truant.

Flatfoot, kipperfoot Policeman

Armoured cow Corned beef

Dilly-day-dream A child who arrives late for a lesson

Spuds A gardening master

G.P. (grand passion) Term of endearment reserved for film stars or sporting heroes

Slosh him on the dial Hit him in the face

Wrap up and wind your neck in Be quiet

Go home your ma's got cake Go away

Dirty tell-tale tit One who reports misdemeanours

Frizzed monkey Fried bread

Snottie gog pie

Tapioca or sago

Bang on, beezer, bonza, flashy, lush, smack on, snazzy, smasho, super-duper, supersonic, whiz-bang

Favourite superlatives

Blinkin' awful, bloomin' 'orrible, cheesy, chronic, foul, fusty, frowsy, idiotic, lousy, mardy, mingy, pesky, rotten swiz, stinking

Popular terms of disapproval

From The Dictionary of Playground Slang, 2003

Ace (1) wonderful, first class

ACE (2) A. C.rap E.ffort. Used to alienate kid who said 'ace'

Gary, Garys Derogatory term used to describe Ben Sherman shirt-wearing, hair-gelled louts. See also Kevins (St Albans) and Darrens (Yateley, Hants) Picasso arse Woman whose knickers are so tight she appears to have four buttocks

Spam head Person with a large forehead

Pig scabs Pork scratchings

Sick Cool, sweet, trendy. From the school of reverse meanings, as in 'bad', 'good'

Lung butter Phlegm (USA)

Solid A favour, an act of kindness, as in 'Do me a solid mate'

Tampax Stupid or unpleasant person

Hairy eyeball Hostile or dubious gaze

From King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds

Sweet, pucka, bitchin, ritzin, mega Good or nice

That sucks, harsh, messed up Nasty

Sweet, wicked, cool, proper good, well good, totally class Great

Wankered, plastered, pissed, off your face, wasted, shit-faced Drunk

Up for a laugh Happy

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