Who fancies a Highland frisky after their Jimmy Skinner? A glossary of slang in the Reminiscences of Superintendent James Bent  

Elaine Goodey is a Doctoral Researcher in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, examining the ‘memoirs’ of police detectives published 1880-1939. She spends her days seeking to understand: a) these texts, and other crime literatures, as a form of entertainment b) the autobiographical genre, and c) detectives’ depictions of identity. Elaine is a member of BAVS and further details of her research can be found here: https://www.midlands4cities.ac.uk/student_profile/elaine-goodey/ or you can follow her on twitter @elainelgoodey 

Introduction

This blog post focusses on just two pages of Superintendent James Bent’s 1891 memoir Criminal Life: Reminiscences of Forty-Two Years as a Police Officer. Bent wrote his text shortly after retiring from the Lancashire constabulary, and it contributes to a rich period of publication of police memoirs between 1880-1939.

A photograph of James Bent from the frontispiece to Criminal Life

My focus here is a small appendix, entitled ‘Note’, which at first glance may seem to be a glossary for the wider text, but which is more accurately read as an entertaining curiosity for the reader. It is nestled between the final chapter of Bent’s reminiscences of police life, which form the bulk of the book, and a long appendix detailing Bent’s volunteering at a soup kitchen.

In his preface Bent hopes his recollections will be ‘found interesting to the general reader’.[1] Indeed, when reading the Note it is clear Bent feels entertainment is to be found in his insight into criminality, rather than policing, and omits any discussion of police jargon that may be of more use to the reader.

The Note comprises of the three sections discussed below.

A paragraph of opening remarks:

In the opening remarks to his glossary Bent terms the entries ‘the jargon which the predatory classes use in communicating with each other’.[1] Immediately, Bent’s description of a ‘predatory’ class creates a sense of a dangerous ‘other’, homogenised into a single group and separate from both the imagined reader and Bent. This is reinforced as he adopts an anthropological tone to describe this language as ‘curious in its way, but thoroughly unintelligible to the outside world’.[2] This widens the gulf between the criminal subject and the reader, with its implication that the ‘predatory classes’ are a community so autonomous, impenetrable and set-apart from the ‘general reader’[3] imagined by Bent that this community has its own language.

Bent offers no detail regarding how he has selected these words, whether some of them are old or obsolete, or whether some are used by specific types of criminals. He merely offers a somewhat disordered, non-alphabetical list of words he deems to be interesting to the reader, further underlining that his text functions as entertainment, rather than a practical guide to either criminality or policing. 

‘Jargon’ and Definitions

Bent’s list consists of 34 terms and the opening five examples are indicative of the list as a whole:

Highland frisky…….. Whisky

Break me…………….Breakfast

Jimmy Skinner………Dinner

Mary Blane………….To meet a train

Salvation……………..Station[4]

Hopefully this reveals my offer of a whisky after dinner in the title!

Almost a quarter of entries are rhyming slang, associated more commonly with London, particularly the ‘cockney’ East End. Thus, a link is made between the ‘predatory classes’ of North East England, and the poor, working-class districts of East London, further excluding the users of this ‘jargon’ from their immediate community in Lancashire.

Noteworthy too, is the persistent use of longer phrases in the place of short words (see: ‘Jimmy Skinner’ substituting ‘dinner’). This is indicative of the need to obscure meaning, rather than pass on information quickly, supporting Bent’s claim that this language is used by the ‘predatory classes’ committing criminal acts and needing to conceal discussion from the police.

Yet not all entries are so clearly designed to confound a listening policeman. Further down the list is ‘Sighted It…..I have seen it’.[5] Given the absence of rhyme and the close meanings of ‘sighted’ and ‘seen’, this is indicative of poor grammar, rather than an effort to conceal meaning. Therefore, the list does not purely reveal the covert language used by criminals but captures the turns of phrase used by those with poor literacy and so, Bent’s glossary obliquely conflates criminality with the working-classes.

‘Thief’s Message Sent by another Thief’

The Note closes with a short passage titled ‘Thief’s Message Sent by another Thief’, an interesting addition, as it suggests the ‘jargon’ was used in written as well as verbal communication. My analysis takes Bent at his word that this is an authentic letter; however, the features discussed below are more than enough to raise the suspicion that Bent has fabricated the message to provide his reader with an example of this ‘jargon’ in use.

Bent supplies the reader with this message but fails to provide any provenance or context for how he sources the letter, simply printing it at the end of the Note and omitting commentary or closing remarks. The thief’s letter contains no spelling mistakes, missing capital letters or absent full stops, indicating that if the note is genuine, it is likely that Bent has silently corrected any grammatical errors. Furthermore, Bent has conscientiously provided a further in-line gloss for the reader, for words such as ‘twirl (good warder)’ and ‘Jenny (watch)’[6] which, inexplicably, are not included in the main glossary. This creates a jarring verisimilitude, where the reader interprets the meaning of the thief’s message, but through a grammatical and linguistic form manipulated by Bent.  

However, this meaning remains elusive as terms such as ‘pulley’ remain unglossed, and in the letter Bent translates ‘twirl’ to ‘good warder’ yet in the main glossary it means ‘house breaking implements’.[7] Perhaps Bent relies on the contemporary reader understanding these terms and a nuance of context lost on modern readers? Perhaps it is designed to give the reader a sense of the slippery and bewildering world of criminal language?

Fabricated or not, the message merely serves as an example of the ‘jargon’ Bent presents to the reader and adds no value to a specific case recounted by him, nor adds to the wider narrative of his text. As such, it simply reinforces the entertainment value of Bent’s ‘Note’ for the ‘general reader’ uninitiated in the ways of criminal communication.

Conclusion

The Note is therefore a glimpse of criminals’ communication during Bent’s career. Yet, it is heavily mediated by Bent’s condescending introduction, his selection and translation of ‘jargon’ terms, and a thief’s message which is at least edited by Bent but perhaps written by him too.

As such, Bent creates a gulf between the reader and an ‘other’, the ‘predatory classes’, which is bridged by the policeman and his experience. The Note therefore offers the reader a voyeuristic insight into the world of the criminal, through the eyes of a policeman. Thus, whilst the Note initially appears to offer the reader clarity, it transports them to the murky underworlds of narrator reliability, and the balance between fact and fiction in memoir.

What does seem clear is the Note’s function as an entertaining snippet. It is isolated from the cases recounted in the rest of the text, offers no practical guidance to avoid falling victim to crime, nor an arguably more useful guide to legal terminology.

So, just as Bent’s Note is a curious diversion for his reader, I hope this blog has been likewise for you.

Bibliography

Bent, James, Criminal Life: Reminiscences of Forty-Two Years as a Police Officer (Manchester; London: John Heywood, 1891)


[1] Bent, p. 271.

[2] Bent, p. 271.

[3] Bent, p. vii.

[4] Bent, p. 271.

[5] Bent, p. 271.

[6] Bent, p. 272.

[7] Bent, p. 271.