A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Hooptedoodle #225 – The Joy of Private Euphemisms

A couple of lempules?
Long ago, when we were kids, my cousin Dave and I used to amuse ourselves by inventing our own words for things; I’m sure that most children do this. Apart from the thrill of being able to persuade ourselves that we were operating in an excitingly secretive manner – like spies, with coded messages, Dave would claim – it was interesting to study the reactions of people who were not privy to our silly little game. Dave was much better at it than I was – he gained lasting fame at his school when he was given a detention for calling one of the prefects a lempule. As far as I am aware, this particular effort has no accepted meaning at all, unlike some of his less successful inventions, but the prefect took exception to it and punished him. Since he could not bring himself to write (or spell?) the dreadful word – maybe scared that somehow he would be tainted forever by association – the prefect simply wrote in the detention book, “Insolent behaviour and abusive language”. It’s easy, isn’t it? – there are situations in which, whatever you do, it will be interpreted in the worst way possible. People will hurt their own feelings to save you the trouble. This particular lempule, by the way, went on to become Bishop of Dunwich, which just goes to prove something or other.

Some of our private vocabulary, I regret to say, accidentally turned out already to exist in the sensible world, occasionally with unfortunate consequences, and one or two of our alternative terms of abuse (such as a favourite of mine, twonker) I find are now in fairly general use. I don’t think we can claim copyright or anything – personally, I blame the Internet. We used to come up with new words – especially descriptions of people we disliked, and we would work on them – perfect them, gradually and with great precision, until they were just right – and we would laugh until we ached.

My family, and a few of my former workmates, have made extensive use over the years of “That’s nice”, as a euphemism for the worst, most contemptuous put-down imagineable. This is the art in it’s highest form; the future bishop must have realised that the description of him was not intended to be favourable – the context and (probably) the construction make it obvious. It is interesting to surmise that he maybe just assumed the word was a reference to some personal shortcoming of which he was already aware. On the other hand, no one is going to take offence at a mere, limp pleasantry, which is harmless enough, if a little soppy (or fembrous, as Dave and I used to say).

In an idle sort of way, I wondered if anyone has any favourite family or personal euphemisms of this type which they have found useful? The trick is to have an armoury of words which sound harmless, but which are full of wicked intent in the ears of those who know. I’m always on the lookout for good ones.

Late Edit...

It's off-topic, but the idea of meaningless words reminds me of of one my greatest personal heroes...

Ah yes - basic Engly Twenty Fido - remarkibold!


  1. My family uses "interesting" as an adjective meaning unforgivably awful.

    I recall the Blackadder episode where our hero creates new words for Samuel Johnson.

    1. "Interesting" is good - i guess the delivery has to be deadpan - any discernible irony and you've blown it. I'd forgotten the Blackadder episode - I must check it out again on YouTube.

  2. My old mum used to refer to anything moving fast and erratically (e.g. me) as 'like a scoppididdle'. Don't know where that comes from and I haven't heard it for years, so thanks for reminding me.

    There's another old Rotherham expression I haven't heard for a bit. When asking the whereabouts of something, you were told 'It's up t'clough on t'third nail.' Roughly translated it means 'How the hell should I know where it is?!'

    1. I like these a lot - the whole subject of local or regional words is fascinating, and complex. Sometimes they appear to have just appeared by themselves, with no obvious derivation, sometimes they are old words from other languages, sometimes they are pretty certainly intended to conceal meaning from outsiders.

      My cousin and I grew up in Liverpool, which has a particularly rich heritage of slang and local dialectic words of unknown origin. Dave grew up to become archivist for Birkenhead and the Wirral, and an active local historian, and he was fascinated by local language. Liverpool, of course, is a seaport, and many of the local words are seafaring words ("scouse" comes from a Scandinavian sailors' word for a meat stew), but there is also a tradition of mysterious things happening at night on the docks - quantities of desirable cargoes being removed from boats or sheds and vanishing into thin air, well beyond the blundering world of the Excise Man. Discussion of these shipments and events in the taverns had a complete vocabulary of its own, to keep things secret. Dave knew some of this - whisky was known as "holy water" or "Auntie Mary" to dockers in Victorian times - there were many, many others. My dad was quite accomplished in back-slang, a complex variation on Pig Latin, which was a common device to prevent conversations being understood by non-collaborators (such as the police, or The Robert). I understand that you will find the same ancient systems in Bristol, and London - each with their own local words.

      Away on a tangent, I once had a chat with a local man in Sicily, who talked me through the complicated local history. The island had a long, deeply confusing history of being a possession of (in no particular order) Greeks, Carthaginians, Saracens, Normans and so on. At any given time, he told me, the local folk would ignore the temporary issue of who was nominally in charge, and if you wanted something done you would go to the people who actually ran the place, who were the influential local families (hence Cosa Nostra). Since many of the things which went on were unknown to the official authorities, a lot of communication used secret words or, especially, sign language.

      Before someone tells me how "interesting" this all is, I'll shut up now, but I have always been fascinated by dialects, words shared by apparently unconnected places and cultures and (especially) the language of children's games and the back streets.

    2. Just so, but I do worry that the local dialect is weakening everywhere in favour of a bland universal English. (Or almost English.) Even the use of 'thee' and 'thou' isn't heard as much in Yorkshire now as it was only a very few years ago.
      Some others for your collection:
      Yitten (frightened)
      Nesh (Feeling the cold - not sure how local that is.)
      Calling. (The 'a' pronounced as in 'apple' - talking.)
      Layking. (Playing, messing about.)
      I liked that floury bread cakes (baps?) in a Barnsley baker's are called 'scufflers', which I thought was really descriptive, especially when you get half a dozen in a paper bag.

    3. This is excellent - I am intrigued by "nesh" - my Liverpool grannie (not my Preston one) used to say nesh, but it was a description of a person who lacked courage, or was cringing - she would observe that I was nesh, for example, if I flinched when she scrubbed my neck with cold water and a nail brush after I'd been playing football.

      The others are unfamiliar to me, but very good. Thanks for this.

  3. The best case of private vocabulary having a meaning in the outside world I ever heard happened when playing a wargame as a mid-teen at my mum's house. My brother's girlfriend happened to come into the room just as the schoolmate I was playing against was about to roll his favourite dice. He even had a special name for it.

    Her face was a picture when he uttered, "Come on minge, give me a six".

    1. Excellent - some of the unfortunate consequences I mentioned in the post were along these lines - this was particularly true when we tried to be too clever, and use some proper etymological links or a combination - sometimes the word either already existed or was transparently obvious.

      The girlfriend's situation becomes complicated - since she (arguably) should not know such words, and is not well advised to either react or ask for a repeat, she is on what in Scotland would be termed a "shoogly peg".

      My dice sometimes have names, but they're usually not friendly.

    2. Ah, she was about 18/19 at the time and is a Grimsby girl so I shouldn't worry for her modesty.

    3. Ah, right - possibly a non-sequitur, but Dave used to refer to tougher ladies as "graters" - just thought I'd mention it.

  4. "That's nice" is an "interesting" response. I must now could back through my blog to see if that comment has popped up describing any of my painting efforts thus displayed.

    1. Be reassured, Young Jonathan - your painting really IS very nice. This is tricky isn't it? Paranoia strikes deep (to quote Mr Stills) - what if everyone did this at the same time?

  5. Whicken - cat
    Whicklet - kitten
    Samdash - sandwich
    Weasel - toy soldier/child
    Odd'nmentals - uniform
    Diddlers - cocktail sausage
    Full and frank exchange of views - a bit of beating
    Binks - medicine
    Bowler - dog
    Yorkies - a homosexual

    1. A splendid list - have you got any more? - these are very fine (no, sincerely, they are). Are these family words or regional ones?

  6. Whicken, bowler and binks are old Dublin. Everything else is family. No others are springing to mind, though there are plenty of nicknames, my favourite of which is Uber. Uber went to a German school and is very tall, hence he is Uber Alles.

  7. Masky - cat
    Jugle - dog
    Bary - good
    Yary - egg
    Peerie - foot
    Koogle - head
    Moy - mouth
    Morty - woman
    Gadgy - man
    Trashy - scares
    Shanned - angry
    Glower - window
    Glims - eyes
    Parny - water

    Are some of the words we use, spellings are uncertain, mind.
    It is mainly gypsy cant, used a lot by the older generations.

    1. Fantastic - I've seen a few of these before, but this is great - you use these within the family? I know little of gypsy language - are these words of a European Romani origin or are they words which grew up within the British gypsy community? (if I've used non-PC terms I didn't mean to!)

    2. I'm not actually a gypsy although my grandma had connections to them. I was born and bred in Hexham, Northumberland (where Harry Pearson lives). The part of Hexham I grew up in called Gilesgate most people used or knew these words. You don't hear them much nowadays, mainly just the older people mang the cant.

      I think most of the words are Romany, I looked them up online once and a Hungarian bloke I worked with knew some of them.

      As you said it was fun as a boy to bamboozle people with your own words, it still is actually!.

    3. Excellent - thanks very much Paul.

  8. My wife's family (Mississippi, southern USA) sometimes said "Well, bless your heart", usually in response to something that someone had said rather earnestly. It took me a while to realize that the phrase, which sounded rather nice, actually dripped with pity, and meant something like "Well, aren't you a prize idiot".

    1. Excellent - majestic, in fact, especially in a country which is noted for "not doing" irony.