Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dibbles, Strunts and Dick Emery

I recently chanced across this rather peculiar sketch (I believe from the 1970s), which formed part of the Dick Emery Show. The joke here is that a prudish vicar tries to avoid using words that might have double meanings by inventing meaningless words. His daughter’s boyfriend, however, happens to be an expert on 17th and 18th century slang and he realises that the vicar’s ‘meaningless’ words are, in fact, much ruder than the words they replace.

For experts in historical slang, this sketch must have seemed peculiarly subversive since it gave Emery the opportunity of using a string of obscene words on a mainstream television show aimed at a family audience.

The four crucial words used are: dibble, placket, pizzle and strunt. Of these I immediately recognised two. Pizzle is a word meaning penis, usually an animal’s penis. Since a pig’s pizzle features prominently in Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, I think it’s reasonable to assume that quite a few viewers of The Dick Emery Show would have recognised the word.

Placket is slightly more obscure, I suppose. However, anyone who’s seen or read many Elizabethan and Jacobean plays will probably have a fair idea of its meaning. It was, at the time, a fairly common slang word for ‘vagina’ (apparently it originally referred to a slit in a petticoat). A typical example comes from Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’:
MAD ASTROLOGER: What's he, a rope-maker?
MAD LAWYER: No, no, no, a snuffling knave, that while he shows the tombs, will have his hand in a wench's placket.

Which just leaves ‘dibble’ and ‘strunt’. In my innocence, the only Dibble I’d ever come upon previously was Officer Dibble in the cartoon, Top Cat. I had to refer to Green’s Dictionary Of Slang for more help. This says that dibble can mean ‘moustache’ (which isn’t rude enough for the Dick Emery sketch) or ‘penis’ (aha! that’s it!). The Dictionary entry is not over-burdened with examples though. The primary one being from 1796 when Robert Burns wrote: “Hey for the gardener lad, To gully away wi his dibble”. Since gardeners still use implements called ‘dibbers’ to make holes in the soil when planting, this example doesn’t strike me as conclusive. It could be a bawdy double entendre. Then again, it might be entirely innocent. I’ve read the original poem (‘Brose and Butter’) and I conceded that the vulgar meaning is quite probably (but not certainly) unintended:
And hey for the gardener's lad,
To gully away wi' his dibble.
My dad sent me to the hill,
To pull my lassie some heather;
And drive it in your fill,
Ye're welcome to the leather.

Even so, I find it odd that there is not a greater range of examples. Was ‘dibble’ really a slang word for penis or did Burns ‘invent’ a double entendre (if such it be) solely for this poem?

Strunt is similarly obscure. Green says it means the “the flashy part of an animal’s tail” and by association, the penis. He quotes Middleton (1608): “consenting she, his art’rizde strunt he drew...” (Incidentally, I had to look up art’rizde too. Apparently, it means “equipped to convey vital spirits”). But the use of ‘strunt’ in this sense seems to be unusual and I haven’t been able to find other examples.

I’d be interested to know who wrote this Dick Emery sketch. Whoever it was certainly knew their way around the highways of byways of historical slang!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Actively Attacking The Passive-Bashers!

Readers of this blog cannot fail to have noticed (mainly because I keep saying it!) that I rather like the passive voice. I have always wondered why so many publishers insist in their style sheets that the active voice is inherently superior to it. This strikes me as a totally barmy prejudice.

I think I may now have found the answer. In a rather wonderful essay entitled 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, Geoffrey Pullum (head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) puts the blame firmly on two gentleman named William Strunk and E. B. White. These learned coves may not be terribly celebrated on the European side of the Atlantic, but in America they are regarded by many as the ultimate authorities on good writing. They produced a book called The Elements of Style which is stuffed full of ‘rules’ on what good writers should and should not do – and one of the greatest writing sins, according to Strunk and White, is the use of the passive.

Pullum has no time for that. He does not pull his punches. In his opinion, “both authors were grammatical incompetents” and, to prove his point, he goes on to rip their anti-passive advice to linguistic shreds...

“What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. "At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard" is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors...”

Suffice to say, Professor Pullum’s attack on Strunk and White is music to Sir Courtly’s ears. I heartily recommend it.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Great Merlini Does The Full Monte

See if you can make sense of this....
“I was tossing broads on the backstretch at Saratoga. There was a fly gee in the tip with a big mittful of folding scratch. He thought he could pick me up, so I let him see me take out the crimp. Then I crossed him by putting it back in the same broad! He was all set to spring when Paper-Collar Ed, who was weeding the sticks, rumbled the gaff trying to duke the cush back to me. Another savage blowed it, sneaked out and beefed to the fuzz. The mark knew the big fellow, and the coppers had to turn on the heat. Ed and I were sneezed before we could slough the joint, and then the fix curdled. The robe was all set to hand us a ninety-day jolt when...”

OK, here’s a clue. It’s about a three-card monte game. This is a rigged gambling game, also called ‘Find The Lady’, in which someone mixes and tosses three cards onto a table or newspaper or some other flat surface and gullible gamblers have to bet on the final position of a certain card (often, but not necessarily, a queen or ‘broad’).

Three three-card monte
The dealer often bends a corner of a card (puts a ‘crimp’ in it) to make the gambler (the ‘sucker’ or ‘mark’) think that he will be able to spot the right card. I should point out that, having studied three-card monte myself (purely for research purposes, you understand!), the mark can never win. If the dealer is doing the three-card monte properly, the odds are stacked 100% in his favour.

OK, now here’s a line by line translation:

I was tossing broads on the backstretch at Saratoga.
I was running a three-card-monte game at the race in Saratogo.

There was a fly gee in the tip with a big mittful of folding scratch.
There was a wise guy in the crowd who knew how the swindle was worked. He had a fistful of paper money.

He thought he could pick me up, so I let him see me take out the crimp.
He thought he could beat me at my own game, so I let him see me straighten out the bent corner.

Then I crossed him by putting in back in the same broad!
Then I double-crossed him by replacing the bend in the same card!

He was all set to spring when Paper-Collar Ed, who was weeding the sticks, rumbled the gaff trying to duke the cush back to me.
He was all ready to bet when Paper-Collar Ed, who was retrieving the money that other members of the mob had been allowed to win as a come-on, wasn’t successful in concealing the fact that he was passing money back to me.

Another savage blowed it, sneaked out and beefed to the fuzz.
Another sucker saw it, sneaked out and called the cops.

The mark knew the big fellow, and the coppers had to turn on the heat.
The sucker had a pull and the police were forced to take action.

Ed and I were sneezed before we could slough the joint, and then the fix curdled. The robe was all set to hand us a ninety-day jolt when...
Ed and I were arrested before I could stop the game and clear out, and then the protection money that had been paid out to the authorities didn’t do its work. The magistrate was about to give us a ninety-day sentence when...

This passage is taken from a novel called The Headless Lady, which was written by a professional magician named Clayton Rawson in 1940. Rawson wrote four mystery novels featuring a conjurer called The Great Merlini. This novel takes place in a circus and it is stuffed full of wonderful slang, jargon and technical terms relating to magic, the circus, gambling and con men. Rawson helpfully explains most of the words in footnotes, which is how I arrived at the translation above. I must say though, that even some of his translations baffle me a bit (what does "The sucker had a pull" mean?).

Anyway, if you have a chance to get this novel, do so. It’s worth it for the lingo alone. As an added bonus, it is also a cracking good story!

Friday, 21 January 2011

Hackers, Crackers and Groucho Marx

A computer hacker is, as everyone knows, a computer programmer, probably a ‘geek’, who undertakes malicious and possibly illegal activities often aimed at infiltrating, corrupting or stealing information from high security computer systems. Hence expressions such as “He’s hacked into the Pentagon”.

Hacker or cracker? Groucho Marx’s name in A Day At The Races probably gives a clue to his medical competence – Dr. Hugo Z Hackenbush.

Here are some recent examples which I’ve spotted in newspapers and online:

4Chan, a Breeding Ground for Hackers, Crippled by Hackers
“Web forum 4Chan, which gave birth to the hacker collective Anonymous, was taken down by hackers Tuesday, the Washington Post reported.”
Skype rules out hacker attack
Skype Chief Information Officer Lars Rabbe took to the web on Wednesday to publicly explain the outage the internet calling site sustained, apparently due to a "bug" and system overloads instead of a hacker "attack."
Gawker falls victim to hackers
Over the past week several big corporations, from MasterCard and Visa to PayPal and Amazon, have come under attack from loosely co-ordinated networks of hackers operating in support of WikiLeaks under the codename of Anonymous. But over the weekend a new kind of victim fell foul of the hackers' attentions – the hyper-fashionable, super-tech-savvy Gawker websites.
Hackers crack open mobile network
Mobile calls and texts made on any GSM network can be eavesdropped upon using four cheap phones and open source software, say security researchers.

I could go on but why bother when everyone agrees that all these stories are using 'hacker' in the universally understood sense of the word?

Well, actually, not everyone does agree.

You see, a large number of non-malicious computer programmers proudly proclaim themselves to be hackers. They don’t try to get into the Pentagon or steal your passwords. They just write computer programs and like to think they do so rather well. To them, the word ‘hacker’ is a compliment. They would argue that it’s the public at large that’s got it all wrong. Hackers are the good guys. The people who get reported in newspaper stories such as the ones above are not hackers at all – they are, on the contrary, ‘crackers’.

Here’s another try. Hacker or cracker? This time Groucho is seen in Animal Crackers. But can you trust him more than Dr Hackenbush...?
The Jargon DB technology web site states that the primary meaning of ‘hacker’ is an entirely positive term for a computer programmer. It marks as ‘deprecated’ the definition ‘A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around’. However, a little research shows that this is not an entirely unbiased source of information. The Jargon DB is based upon The Jargon File which is the web version of the book The New Hacker’s Dictionary. I venture to suggest that any dictionary that places the word ‘hacker’ in its title might have a vested interest in asserting a positive meaning for that word.

Even so, it cannot be denied that there are many non-malicious computer programmers who pride themselves in being hackers. When I interviewed Rick Ellis (the developer of the Code Igniter programming system for web-based applications) I asked him what he understood by the term.

Rick said:
“Among computer programmers, ‘hacker’ is generally a positive term, referring to a skilful programmer who solves problems for the community at large. People who do nefarious things are known as ‘crackers’. If you read How to Become a Hacker by Eric Raymond (one of the fathers of the open source movement) you'll see that there is a clear distinction between hackers and crackers. The general public tends to view the term ‘hacker’ in the negative, but most programmers draw a distinction between hackers and crackers.”

I am still not convinced. You see, I have been a programmer since the early 1980s. I’ve written programming columns for many of the best known UK computer magazines. I now run a software programming company  which makes programming software for software programmers! And I would hate it, absolutely hate it if someone were to call me a hacker. I would, indeed, be deeply insulted. I’ve spoken to a number of other professional programmers here in Britain and they’ve expressed exactly the same opinion. We do not regard ‘hacker’ as a word with positive connotations.

My conclusions are this:

1) Non-programmers everywhere universally use ‘hacker’ to mean a malicious programmer.
2) Some programmers use ‘hacker’ to mean a clever programmer but it seems to me that those who use the term in this sense are most likely to be involved in Open Source programming (that is, the ‘free software’ movement which encourages programmers to make their code available for others to modify).
3) Some professional programmers may be happy with the word but many are not. If I were employing a programmer, I would not respond well to reading a CV in which ‘hacker’ was given as a job description.
4) There is even more scope for confusion due to the fact that some programmers (among whom I include myself) use ‘hacker’ as a term to describe not a malicious programmer but a slipshod one. If someone told me “Fred is a real hacker” I would assume they meant that Fred has a habit of doing quick and dirty fixes rather than writing careful and accurate code. In that sense, ‘hacker’ is to programming what ‘hack’ is to journalism.

Whatever your view on the word, I think it is fair to say that if you use the word ‘hacker’ in any way other than the normal everyday negative sense it is, at best, ambiguous. If you attempt to use it to someone unfamiliar with jargon used in Open Source circles, you leave yourself wide open to misinterpretation.

Oh, and yeah, I know the Groucho Marx connection is pretty tenuous. Then again, I’d rather have pictures of the Marx Brothers on this Blog than of computer programmers :-)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Green’s Dictionary Of Slang, Filth and Rick Astley

I received (nay, I demanded with menaces!) a copy of the new three volume Green’s Dictionary Of Slang from my dearest beloved as a Christmas present. Unfortunately, due to other commitments related to the unfortunate necessity of earning hard cash, I have not yet had the chance to study it in depth.

I shall therefore defer giving my considered opinion on this mighty oeuvre until a later date. In the meantime, you may want to take a look at Colin MacCabe’s review in the New Statesman. Apart from his views on the Dictionary itself, MacCabe also provides a few interesting titbits on Mr Green. For some reason, I had formed a picture of Jonathon Green as a dusty academic who, when he’s not researching Anglo-Saxon epic verse or High German alliterative poetry, gravitates towards the dark library cellars containing learned tomes of historical smut. So I was surprised to discover that Mr Green had formerly written for such academic journals as Rolling Stone, International Times and Oz and his previous publications includes such eminent titles as The Big Book of Filth and The Big Book of Bodily Functions.

This heartens me greatly. Speaking as the writer of such fine works as The Mega-pop Trivia Quiz Book, the Bruce Willis Special Edition Poster Magazine and The Pet Shop Boys Mega Mix Annual (many of which are still available from Amazon sellers) and also as the publisher of 18 Rated Magazine (banned by Mssrs W H Smith and all good newsagents) I feel in good company. Indeed, I see that Mr Green was employed by the Felix Dennis publishing company so it is entirely possible that we have passed upon the stairs at some time or another. I used to edit a magazine (The PC Buyer’s Guide) published by Dennis and I’ve been a columnist and reviewer for various other Felix Dennis magazines too.

Ah, if only I had devoted my life to the study of vulgarity, perhaps I too might have ascended to the heights of Jonathon Green! Alas, I remain but an amateur of the vulgar tongue. So while my best chance at everlasting fame is, perhaps, my celebrated ‘1988 Rick Astley Special’, Jonathon Green has given the world his wonderful dictionary. O! the cruel twists of fate!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Political words of 2010

Bigotgate, Cleggmaina, rodents and Spoonerisms. A summary of some of the words that featured in the reporting of UK politics this year: BBC News - 2010: A political year in words

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Lickety splits: two nations divided by a common language

The 1950 Manchester Guardian stylebook gravely listed "Americanisms" to avoid, including "aim to do" (instead of "aim of doing"), "balding", "to call" (rather than "to telephone"), "to contact", "to date" (rather than "so far"), "to help him finish the job" (instead of "to help him to finish the job"), "high-ranking officer", "to pinpoint", "teen-ager" and many similar outrages that no doubt exercised letter writers of the time.
In 2010, its readers object to brownstone, duke it out, lickety split, pony up and suck. Can't see the problem myself. English has a long and glorious history of sucking up new words like a sponge. Far better to do that than to worry endlessly about foreign imports as the French seem to do.

More on The Guardian: