The ‘M’ in ‘MLE’ – Youth Slang’s Origins

Much of the vocabulary of MLE, the speech variety known as Multiethnic or Multicultural London English, derives (not always straightforwardly) from Caribbean or Black British usages, or from London’s white ‘working class’, often dubbed ‘Cockney,’ argot. There are, however, a number of slang expressions, used in the school playground and on the street by younger speakers, which come from elsewhere in the UK’s language matrix, even from archaic or foreign sources. Here are some examples…

 

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Feen (n)

Means: a male person

Usage: “Who’s the feen over by the gate?”

The proper names for Yoofspeak, so linguists tell us, are MLE (multi-ethnic or multicultural London English) or UBE (urban British English, with ‘vernacular’ sometimes substituted for English), but not all playground language emanates from the larger cities and ethnic or ‘cultural’ doesn’t only mean Afrocarribean or Asian.

One term that’s widely used around the UK is rarely if ever heard in the Smoke, but belongs to a 300 year-old tradition. Feen, also spelled fein, has been borrowed from the slang of Travellers, the argot formerly used by Tinkers and known as Shelta, itself deriving mainly from Irish Gaelic. In Irish feen simply means “man” but in slang it sometimes has the extra senses of “stranger” or “rogue”. Don’t confuse this with the verb “to feen” (sometimes “feem”), a modern import from US street-talk, which is an alteration of ‘fiend’ and means craving for, or obsessing over, as in “I’m feenin’ for some weed” or “he’s feenin’ over that new girl.”

 laughing

 

Hollage (n)

 Means: something hilarious

 Usage: “Have you seen Charlotte’s latest outfit? Très hollage!”

 Posher teens have their own version of yoofspeak, their own mix of would-be street slang, babytalk and invented expressions, typically in the form of girly yells of approval (by both sexes) and squeals of delight (ditto).

When the denizens of the middle-class playground are trading witticisms a favourite trick is to insert touches of French – the odd real word (“quelle disaster”, “beaucoup trouble”) and Franglais pronunciations. “Rummage” (sex), and “bummage” (enthusiasm) have been frenchified, but current favourite is “hollage”, meaning huge amusement or hugely amusing, pronounced to rhyme with English “college” or like French “collage”, or, some young purists insist, as three-syllable “holla-age”.

It looks as if the little sophisticates have adapted “holla”, (the hip-hop version of “holler”, meaning to yell), one of cool Yoof’s iconic expressions from the noughties, and slightly misunderstood it in the process, since it originally described phoning, praising or seducing rather than braying with laughter. In the US the very similar-looking “holla-age” has indeed been used to describe “the appropriate way to acknowledge or compliment a female.”

Stupid Emoji Stickers

Dinlo (n)

Means: an idiot

Usage: “You can tell Callum anything and he’ll believe it, he’s a right dinlo.”

Some linguists are claiming that far from dying out, regional dialects – and that includes local slang terms – are being helped by messaging, chatting and tweeting on social media sites, as well as old-fashioned word of mouth – to spread further across the UK. A probable example of this is yet another term for a complete dope, or dupe, (in practice nearly always male) which originated in Romany (and not in Cantonese as claimed on Urban Dictionary) as dinilo and has long been in use from the New Forest, via Portsmouth’s ‘Pompey – slang’ to East Anglia. Dinlo(w) is the usual form, although “dinler”, “dindler” and “dingle” have also been recorded. Yoof elsewhere have now added these to their already rich lexicon of insults, sometimes abbreviating to “dinny” or just “din”.

 

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Trek (v,n)

Means: (to go on) a long and tedious journey

Usage: “Man we been trekkin’ for hours!” “From her endz to ours is a trek.”

Researchers into Yoofspeak will know that in nearly every batch of new expressions offered up as the latest teen lingo, there are one or two which are not really slang at all. This is because most of the younger generation are not familiar with them and don’t realise that they are standard English: also, to be fair, because they sound and look exotic, possibly subversive to the uninitiated. “Trek”, used more or less in its original sense is a popular feature of playground complaints – the moaners probably don’t know much Afrikaans (from which we got the word), and even Star Trek the Prequel is a distant memory. More recently the word, or the variant “treks!” can be an exclamation, declaring that something, not necessarily a journey, is too tiring or boring to bother with or to finish, but one post on Urban Dictionary defines it much more specifically – and perhaps just slightly more positively – as a “4-10-mile” walk undertaken to counteract the effects of drugs or alcohol.

Examples of the same phenomenon are “luka” or “lookah”, used by some London kids to mean money, which seems like Multiethnic dialect but is really the picturesque old phrase ‘filthy lucre’ after a makeover. (Oddly, in the US, the Slavonic boy’s name Luka seems to have been conflated with the colloquial “looker” to denote an attractive male.) “Burly”, which one user explained as a blend of “beautiful” and “gnarly”, expresses admiration for a tough-looking male, and “reek” as in “Ben’s room really reeks” is also considered a really cool novelty. (Incidentally and tangentially, adult informants tell me that for them “reek” mainly registers these days as the name of a character in TV fantasy Game of Thrones, or as a mistyping of ‘wreak.’)

 

(These terms were first recorded in my Youthspeak column in the TES)

 

The N-word Yet Again

On July 10 Samir Dathi tweeted: ‘Anne Marie Morris suspended for using N-word. Good. But why is someone who called black people ‘picaninnies’ our foreign secretary?’

Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot’s use of the phrase ‘nigger in the woodpile‘ provoked widespread condemnation and resulted in her suspension and an abject public apology, but the UK public and media have a very short memory. It was far from an isolated instance of this crass archaism being invoked by British politicians, as this website records:

https://www.theyworkforyou.com/search/?q=%22in+the+woodpile%22&o=o

The expression originated in the USA (Mr Slang, Jonathon Green has a first citation as the name of a popular song from the 1840s) where it was usually associated with an image of a runaway slave in concealment, but it is in the UK where it has enjoyed a lengthy and unfortunate afterlife.

I can testify that the phrase was used by middle-class speakers in conversation in the UK the 1950s and 1960s. It was possible to use the n-word (not the whole phrase) in Britain up to the end of the 1950s without having a conscious racist intention. The WW2 flying ace Guy Gibson, for instance, named his beloved pet dog ‘Nigger’ and I can remember myself using the word in a public swimming pool in suburban London in about 1959 to point out a black child playing nearby (a rare thing in our lower middle-class neighbourhood). Even then my father rebuked me very sternly, saying ‘we don’t say that and you mustn’t use the word!

Yasmeen Serhan reported on the MP’s gaffe for American readers in The Atlantic:

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/anne-marie-morris-suspended/533220/

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Attempts were made, by Tory supporters and some linguists, to excuse the MP on the grounds that she is 60 years old and so for her generation the words in question carry little or less force. Others pointed out that inadvertent racism is nonetheless racism, but where quibbles about slurs and taboos are concerned, I think the acid test is actually to debate them in real-life environments. I have discussed the n-word and similar controversies with a range of young people and with older members of BAME communities* and they are simply not acceptable. Quite apart from clumsiness and insensitivity on the part of somebody in public life, it’s arguable, too, that Morrison used the expression wrongly: it doesn’t mean an unanticipated or an unappreciated future eventuality, but a hidden snag. The nuances – the semantic components and assumptions embedded in the phrase are interesting and challenging to unpick – the connotations of such usages may also mutate over time. Potential confusions are illustrated by the several interpretations or misunderstandings posted on Urban Dictionary:
On a very personal note, it occurred to me that finding an escaped slave today, perhaps in the woodshed behind a prosperous suburban or rural home, is entirely possible in a Britain where traffickers and slavemasters prey on migrants, refugees and the poor and desperate. Oh and, on the subject of the Foreign Secretary, a satirical Twitter poll resulted in this:
  Whether B[oris] Johnson should also be expelled for calling black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’: Yes: 95% No: 5%’)
AT, also on Twitter, reminded me of this case, for comparison:
Finally, it’s not only in the UK that language misuses, or, more kindly, misunderstandings are taken seriously: here (in French) is someone I know causing a furore in 2015:
*https://tonythornesite.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/the-b-word/