Heroes and Heroines of Slang 3: ‘Arry (and ’Arriet)
The word cockney has resolutely resisted any simple etymology. It is first noted in 1362, when it meant a ‘cock’s egg’—that is, a defective one. However there was an alternative use, first recorded in Chaucer and defined in the second edition of the OED (1989) as ‘a mother’s darling’; a cockered child, pet, minion; ‘a child tenderly brought up’; hence, a squeamish or effeminate fellow, ‘a milksop’. Hence too the equation, presumably coined by self-aggrandizing countrymen, of the weakling with the townsman, a use initially recorded in 1521. These initial uses – the townee, the softy – were general; if London was assumed then it was simply because it was still the country’s largest town. The modern definition, in which the reference narrows down not merely to the working-class Londoner, but specifically to one who has been ‘born within the sound of Bow bells,’ would emerge around 1600.
Bow bells? A set of chimes not, as often believed, in London’s eastern suburb of Bow, but within the church of Saint Mary le Bow in Cheapside in the City of London. In 2000 a study was carried out to see how far the Bow bells could be heard: it was estimated that they would have been audible six miles to the east, five to the north, three to the south, and four to the west, an area that covers Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Bow, and Mile End, as well as Bermondsey, south of the River Thames. In 1600, that represented a good chunk of a city that was yet to develop its West End. Nor were the original Cockneys invariably working class. All sorts of individuals would once have spoken the London dialect, even if the great push for linguistic ‘purity’ during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prohibited such ‘vulgarisms’ from the aspirant middle class. To paraphrase the writer Harry M. Ayers, Cockney may be ‘the underprivileged slum cousin of “good” English’, ‘the whipping boy of purists’ and ‘ a despised jargon’ but it remains the language of several million people.
The OED‘s first recorded use of Cockney as speech is dated 1776 (just 20 years after slang). But it has been suggested that a Cockney style of speech is much older, and William Matthews, in his study Cockney Past and Present (1938) offered examples from the sixteenth century onwards. Shakespeare is among those he quotes, although the playwright’s Cockneyisms are far from TV’s East Enders. Early Cockney is primarily down to pronunciation, as reverse-engineered from the recorded spelling of words such as frust (thrust), farding (farthing), anoder (another), and so on.
The nineteenth century saw the first wholesale attempt to record Cockney as it was spoken. The low-life episodes of Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) take his heroes deep into the East End and they revel in its language. Dickens, notably with Sam Weller and his father, is unsurprisingly keen on setting down the sound of Cockney speech, most obviously in the substitution of ‘v’ for ‘w’ and vice versa. The pioneering sociologist Henry Mayhew recorded his impoverished or criminal interviewees in much the same style. Mayhew remains neutral but Dickens implies a moral judgement on those who drop their aitches and reverse their v’s and w’s: irrespective of their background ‘virtuous’ characters, such as Oliver Twist and Nancy, never stray from standard English. It is left to villains such as Bill Sykes and the Artful Dodger to display the author’s knowledge of underworld cant. Yet ‘Dickensian’ Cockney was short-lived. By the century’s end a new school of Cockney novelists—notably William Pett Ridge, Edwin Pugh, and Arthur Morrison—had emerged. It is ‘their’ Cockneyisms that are far more like what one hears today. At much the same time London’s music hall was dominated by stars such as Albert Chevalier, Gus Elen, Marie Lloyd or Bessie Bellwood (actually Kathleen Mahoney, however much she was seen as a ‘typical’ Cockney), all of whom promoted themselves by creating personas – complete with local slang – that appeared to embody the lives of the East Enders who made up their audiences.
Alongside all these Cockneys – fictional or theatrical – one representation stands out beyond any other. No coster comedian, no product of a Cockney novelist could rival E.J. [Edward James] Milliken’s grotesque, created for the pages of Punch in 1877 and strutting there for 20 years: ’Arry.
The essence of ’arry, he sez, is high sperrits. That ain’t so fur out.
I’m ‘Fiz’ not four ’arf, my dear feller. Flare-up is my motter, no doubt.
Carn’t set in a corner canoodling, and do the Q. T. day and night.
My mug, mate, was made for a larf, and you don’t ketch it pulling a kite.
Wot odds arter all? We’re jest dittos! I’m not bad at bottom, sez you.
Well, thankye for nothink, my joker. As long as I’ve bullion to blue,
I mean to romp round a rare buster, lark, lap, take the pick of the fun,
And, bottom or top, good or bad, keep my heye on one mark — Number One!
‘’Arry on His Critics’ Punch 17 Dec. 1887
Milliken was the ‘Suggestor-in-Chief’ for the London humour magazine Punch: among one of the most valuable of the staff, he thought up the major cartoons and wrote their captions. ’Arry’s first appearance came in 1874, in just such a cartoon plus caption – ‘’Arry on ’Orseback — but it was a dry run. This was not ’Arry fully-formed, but merely a generic for what the OED in 1889, using that same caption as the term’s first citation, defined the fledgling star as ‘a low-bred fellow (who ‘drops his h’s’) of lively temper and manners.’ The first ‘real’ ballad did not appear until 1877. A decade later Jenny Hill could sing of the Cockney toff ‘’Arry’ and her music hall audience knew just who she meant.
A 21st century ’Arry might be bracketed with the chavs, but he transcends that underclass in aspirations, social encounters and loudly voiced opinions: traditionalist, jingoistic, xenophobic and unashamedly conservative. His ‘betters’, whom he worshipped, would have termed him a counter-jumper. If Brexit had reared its Little Englander head in 1880, he would have been among the first to applaud its meretricious fantasies. In his time he was a cad, a term that comes ultimately from standard English cadet, but more immediately from Eton and Oxford slang, in which a cad was a townsmen: the implication being that such a figure could not be ‘a gentleman’. He appears in the form of verse letters to his country friend ‘Charlie’, five or six per year. (Charlie achieved a single reply, in 1877, but that idea was dropped and all else is monologue). With illustrations by Punch’s stable of artists, including Bernard Partridge, George Du Maurier, and Linley Sambourne, Milliken used his creation to sound off on a succession of issues, be they political, social, or simply views on such things as travel. His monster expatiated on class – seeing himself as the equal, if not in many ways the superior of the ‘swells’ (‘Call me Cad? When money’s in the game, / Cad and Swell are potty much the same’) – on dress (‘Yaller ulster and elbows well crook’d on the ’igh-perlite pump-’andle plan’), on ‘’ot and spicy entertainment’, on patriotism and on women, whom he loved, or at least flirted with when in their place, and predictably despised when they turned too clever. A mirror-image girlfriend. ’Arriet, occasionally made her own appearances, but ’Arry’s eye was always roving.
Milliken described his creation thus, in a letter:
‘ ’Arry — as you say — the essential Cad, is really appalling. He is not a creature to be laughed at or with. My main purpose was satirical — an analysis of and an attack on the spirit of Caddishness, rampant in our days in many grades of life, coarse, corrupting, revolting in all. […] As to ’Arry’s origin, and the way in which I studied him, I have mingled much with working men, shop-lads, and would-be smart and “snide” clerks — who plume themselves on their mastery of slang and their general “cuteness” and “leariness.” I have watched, listened, and studied for years “from the life,” and I fancy I’ve a good memory for slang phrases of all sorts; and my ’Arry “slang,” as I have said, is very varied, and not scientific, though most of it I have heard from the lips of street-boy, Bank-holiday youth, coster, cheap clerk, counterjumper, bar-lounger, cheap excursionist, smoking-concert devotee, tenth-rate suburban singer, music hall “pro” or his admirer, etc. etc.’
’Arry flourished through the Eighties and into the Nineties but his creator was ageing and increasingly ill, and his Cockney vulgarian sickened with him. Two letters from ’Arrygate (Harrogate) appeared in 1892 (Milliken was conveniently taking the waters). Still, ’Arry was well enough to applaud Oxford University in 1896 when it refused to grant degrees to women and, as he put it ‘old Hoxford’ had given ‘the bluestockings wot for! / Miss Minerva is chucked and no muffins.’ It was, in ’Arry-speak, ‘quite right and scrootnoodleous.’ The final letter, all flag-brandishing and nary a syllable of cynicism, came in 1897, congratulating Victoria on her diamond jubilee. It was just in time: Milliken died later that year.
Whatever our reaction to ’Arry we cannot deny that what makes him is his use of slang. Whether he’s on the boulevards of ‘Parry’, punting on the river, scratching his name on Stonehenge, commenting on adverse criticism in a literary magazine, or excoriating some threateningly intellectual ‘blue’, every stanza is loaded down with a generous helping of the counter-language.
After all, ’Arry had no doubts: slang came, like a number of habits that ‘toffs’ claimed to despise, from the bottom up:
As to slang, and strong language, and so on, objections to them is all stuff;
What are they but anticipation — to-morrer’s swell-slang in the rough?
That the nobs prig their patter from ours you may see by their plays and their books,
And the lingo that’s used by FITZFOODLE’s inwented by SNOBKINS or SNOOKS.
And he is justifiably proud of his own contributions. In December 1887, in a riposte to an antagonistic piece in the St James Gazette he tells his friend that:
‘…this joker, I tell yer, runs slap orf the track
Wen he says that my togs and my talk are ‘the fashion of sev’ral years back.’
The slang of the past is my patter — mine, CHARLIE, he sez! Poor young man!
If I carn’t keep upsides with the cackle of snide ’uns, dear CHARLIE, who can?
Wot is slang, my dear boy, that’s the question. The mugs and the jugs never joke.
Never gag, never work in a wheeze; no, their talk is all skilly and toke,
’Cos they ain’t got no bloomin’ hinvention; they keeps to the old line of rails,
With about as much ‘go’ as a Blue Point, about as much rattle as snails.
MAVOR’s Spellin’ and Copybook motters is all they can run to.
But slang? Wy, it’s simply smart patter, of wich ony me and my sort ’as the ‘ang.
Snappy snideness put pithy, my pippin, the pick of the chick and the hodd,
And it fettles up talk, my dear CHARLIE, like ’ot hoyster sauce with biled cod.
Three years later he was back celebrating his own facilities:
’Tisn’t grammar and spellin’ makes patter, nor yet snips and snaps of snide talk.
You may cut a moke out o’ pitch-pine, mate, and paint it, but can’t make it walk.
You may chuck a whole Slang Dixionary by chunks in a stodge-pot of chat.
But if ’tisn’t alive, ’tain’t chin-music , but kibosh, and corpsey at that.
Kerrectness be jolly well jiggered! Street slang isn’t Science, dear pal,
And it don’t need no ‘glossery’ tips to hinterpret my chat to my gal.
I take wot comes ’andy permiskus, wotever runs slick and fits in.
And when smugs makes me out a ‘philolergist,’—snuffers! it do make me grin!
‘Philolergist’ or not, the ballads are good for 1000 terms of ‘snappy snideness’ (although strangely, given the form’s contemporary popularity, only two might qualify as rhyming). And the bulk were very much of his era (even if in his ‘transcription’ Milliken allows the occasional anachronistic ‘w’ for ‘v’): if he had known a ‘Slang Dixionary’ it would have been Hotten’s editions from 1859 or perhaps Barrère and Leland (thirty years later), and he overlaps with the former but 75 times and the latter merely 10. But why disbelieve Milliken: he used what he had found, and there was a great deal. ’Arry would benefit, as would his readers, and in time, though he is lamentably under used by contemporaries such as Farmer and Henley, so very gratefully would the lexicographers.