Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent

Jargon and slang get a bad press. In the right contexts, though, they serve an important communicative purpose, at the same time allowing users to express their identity as part of a community – and to have fun with language while doing so.

Any specialised activity accumulates its own vocabulary, born of the particular actions, situations, equipment, and people involved. These lingos occasionally leak into other domains, or even the mainstream, but for the most part they remain more or less constrained or hidden, niche terminologies available only to the tribes in question.

susie-dent-dents-modern-tribes-the-secret-languages-of-britain-book-coverIn her new book Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain, Susie Dent presents a host of these distinct lexicons for wider appreciation. As well as being a lifelong word lover, Dent is an unabashed eavesdropper, ear always poised for scraps of idiosyncratic interaction. That method, combined with straight-up interviews and chats, has yielded a wealth of material from a great variety of human professions and hobbies: cab drivers and cricketers, actors and anglers, soldiers and spies, roadies and ravers, firefighters and freemasons, teachers and (of course) trainspotters – dozens in all, each a rich source of verbal codes and curiosities.

These lexicons bundle history aplenty. For example, ever since Churchill, as UK home secretary, gave black-cab drivers the right to refuse a fare while eating, cabbies have referred to a meal as a Churchill. A slow period for taxis is called kipper season, ‘apparently from the days when cabbies could only afford to eat kippers’. Other terms are derived from more immediate sources: among cabin crew members a slam-clicker is, echoically, one who ‘goes straight to the hotel on landing and doesn’t emerge again until it’s time to leave’.

There is a grand medley of types of terms. This includes acronyms: a MAMIL is a middle-aged man in lycra (cycling); technical jargon: say your state is how to ask a pilot how much fuel their plane still has; back slang: dab tros is butchers’ code for a bad sort; and rhyming slang: a bunny is what some actors call a script, from (bunny) rabbit & pork = talk. There are also greetings and good lucks: Stay vertical, say bikers. Keep the shiny side up and the greasy side down, say truckers.

Many specialised phrases refer to other people: in-groups and out-groups relative to the tribe, and often tribes within the tribes. Birdwatchers – a dated term, apparently – may be birders, twitchers, togs, dudes, or greenies, according to their particular type of interest or level of experience. All are apt to grill  (watch closely) a crippler (rare and spectacular bird).

Much hospital lingo has become familiar though popular TV dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, but Dent’s Modern Tribes has no shortage of additions. Many are darkly comical: bones and groans is the general ward, UBI is an unexplained beer injury, house red is blood (or a blood transfusion), stream team is the urology department, and ECU is the eternal care unit (i.e., heaven). Dent elaborates on the code of the emergency room:

Amid the bustle of triage and tantrums, the professionals exchange clipped phrases littered with abbreviations and cryptic jargon. Theirs is an utterly private shorthand used for clarity, brevity, and secrecy. It is also practical, creative, and frequently blue.

With the NHS now the fifth biggest employer worldwide, it’s unsurprising that medicine has

developed its own unique dialect, one that’s split into public and private. The private is characterized by black humour, irreverence, and euphemism. This is never more evident than in patients’ notes, which can include more observations than you bargained for.

Hospital also shows up in booksellers’ lingo, where a hospital copy is ‘a defective version of a canonical book held in stock only so that it can be cannibalized to improve another defective copy’. God’s copy, by contrast, is a particularly fine example of a book, while a dog or woofer is unsellable. Speaking of woofers (the speakers, that is), don’t ever refer directly to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique among classical musicians. Because of various percussion disasters in its history, they prefer to call it The French Piece.

Each chapter has a set of related tribes, and with each tribe Dent explores its history or salient features. Every lexicon is steeped in its own lore and subculture, like the cryptic code of doctors, for whom discretion is essential, or the exclamations of darts enthusiasts that point to the boisterous atmosphere of a busy pub. Scattered throughout are passages on interesting etymologies. I was intrigued to learn, for instance, that we owe blaze a trail to the Vikings:

Trails used in hiking are often signposted with ‘blazes’ – a waymarking system that uses painted marks along the route. Blaze was a term borrowed from the Vikings after they raided British shores. Their word was blesi, a white star on a horse’s forehead, and the English version of it became ‘blaze’, a light-coloured mark or spot.

Early settlers in Massachusetts would ‘blaze roads through the woods, chipping the bark off the trees to indicate the path . . . . To blaze a trail was to be the first to take it, marking it out for others to follow’. And so ‘every word is a story in itself’, as Dent said in a recent interview; and as C4 Countdown’s resident lexicographer she has more such stories than most.

The only off-note for me, and it’s a small one, is that strong swear words are censored throughout – a strange decision, since the book is not aimed at children. As compensation, there are many phrases that sound rude but aren’t, like jizz, a waiter’s word for sauce or gravy, and funt, not an obscene blend but bankers’ slang for someone who is financially untouchable.

In the introduction Dent describes her book as in some ways

not just about words that are lost in translation, but about ones that are sometimes lost altogether. We have a knack of filtering out the strange sounds surrounding us every day, because we’re not part of the crowd they’re intended for. Besides, we’re too busy lobbing our own words over the same heads to get to the people who’ll understand us. . . . these drops from the eaves are not just worth savouring themselves, they also offer us a little piece of wisdom about the group who uses them.

The book finishes, appropriately, with a brief guide to eavesdropping.

Dent’s Modern Tribes is a work of considerable interest and charm, dishing up verbal pleasures and surprises on virtually every page. The passion of Dent’s chosen tribes for their respective niches is matched by that of the author for these hidden linguistic corners. The hefty research behind the book is worn lightly, and the results will appeal to word lovers and armchair anthropologists of every stripe. You can order it from Hodder and Stoughton (whose imprint John Murray sent me a copy for review), Amazon, or your preferred bookstore.

For more insights, anecdotes, and tribal words, you can hear Susie Dent speak eloquently about the book and tribal lingo here:

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9 Responses to Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent

  1. John Cowan says:

    The French Piece reminds me of the Scottish Play. And if jizz means ‘sauce’, I bet it’s generalized from a glutinous white sauce.

    • Stan Carey says:

      My guess is that The French Piece was coined by analogy with The Scottish Play. And you’re probably right about jizz. GDoS dates the ‘gravy’ sense to the 1930s–40s (US, mainly Southern), a few decades after the sexual sense.

  2. astraya says:

    I read somewhere about a television adaptation of Macbeth, set in a modern-day restaurant. Someone refers to Gordon Ramsay. There is shocked silence, then someone else says ‘Oh, you mean “the Scottish chef”?’

  3. […] review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent. Countdown has long been a favourite show of mine and Susie Dent is my favourite person on […]

  4. Kate Bunting says:

    Years ago my mother occasionally used the word ‘jizzup’ (sp?), which she had learned from her late father-in-law, to refer to a beverage that was a little out of the ordinary.

  5. […] Book review – Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain […]

  6. […] word-history specialist and broadcaster, Dent has written several books on language, most recently Dent’s Modern Tribes. She is best known as the resident lexicographer in ‘dictionary corner’ on Countdown, a […]

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