Mind your language

1880s slang: How to fig a nag and pitch a snide

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

‘I want my money back,’ said my husband. ‘This is from the 1880s, not the 1980s.’ He looked up from my copy of Soho in the Eighties by my neighbour at the other end of the mag, Christopher Howse (CSH of Portrait of the Week, who also recalls his drinking days in the Coach and Horses).  My husband had not, of course, paid a penny for it.

What caught his interest surprised me too. It was a canting song by W.E. Henley (author of ‘Invictus’: ‘I am the captain of my soul’), published in 1887 under the title (which Mr Howse doesn’t mention) ‘Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves’, it being a sort of translation of his ballade with the refrain Tout aux tavernes et aux filles. The excuse for putting it in a book about Soho in the 1980s was that two Soho regulars, the blind John Heath-Stubbs and the deaf David Wright, had put it in their anthology The Forsaken Garden.


Henley’s poem is a battery of slang that he was collecting for Slang and its Analogues Past and Present, compiled with J.S. Farmer. The first stanza is not quoted by Mr Howse:

Suppose
you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
Or
fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or
thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or
pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
…How
do you melt the multy swag?
Booze
and the blowens cop the lot.

In the 1850s, Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor quotes a man who could screeve a fakement or ‘concoct a begging letter’. Cheap-jack is familiar; Mayhew calls them ‘oratorical hucksters’. Broads means ‘playing cards’. Farmer explained fig a nag as ‘play the coper with an old horse and a fig of ginger’; the OED confesses that it is to ‘introduce an irritant such as ginger into a horse’s anus to make it move in a lively manner’. Knap is ‘steal’ and yack is ‘a watch’ (from the Romany for ‘eye’).

Pitch a snide is ‘pass a false coin’, while smash a rag is ‘change a forged note’. Multy, though from Italian multo, means ‘criminally obtained’. And a blowen is ‘a wench’ (something that no longer exists). Villon, I think, would have been impressed.

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