English As Sheer Spoke
That was how my mother referred to idiomatic English, and while there have been dozens of books on the peculiarities of the English language, including fanciful volumes of outdated rhyming slang and even a history of Polari (which was still in common use until the 1990s) few have noticed the everyday oddities because we simply take them for granted. Slang exists without us realising; ‘Heard from her lately?’ ‘Not a dicky bird‘ – still very common, but a rhyme of course.
Older people are a national archive for odd phrases, especially in less populated regions where the edges have not been rubbed off. You still hear Neither use not ornament used occasionally, and the Yorkshire Negative ‘They’re never doing that, are they?’ is still common among over-40s. A friend from Sheffield can’t say ‘I was sitting’ but always uses ‘I was sat’ – a survivor of his upbringing.
My PA uses a real oddity, learned from her parents. ‘I haven’t heard from him since the old king died.’ I use it as well. Snippets of Monty Python seem to have entered the language. Nobody can say the word wafer without pronouncing it French thanks to John Cleese’s oleaginous waiter. ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ is now adapted to everyday use with a single word substitution.
Fags, gaspers and snouts have all returned to fashion as a substitute for cigarettes. Wonga, notes and dosh are all still synonyms for cash, with dosh also used as a verb (‘I’ll dosh you up later’). Sixpence short of a shilling, and Lost half crown and found a sixpence are not as much used now in London. The young have a fast evolving set of phrasings with Fam and Bey and the ubiquitous Innit tacked onto sentences. Notably, the ubiquitous Mate has jumped barriers from a working class call-out (Oi Mate!) to a middle class term of endearment (Mate, how you doing?)
The best examples I’ve heard of real London language are in the TV comedy series ‘Stath Lets Flats’, which features second generation working class Europeans claiming a common ground in a form of mangled English that exists wherever people from different linguistic backgrounds meet socially. Much like me speaking Spanish, the words are bolted together badly, so that while they’re technically the right nouns and adjectives, the resulting sentences are Frankenstein-like and clumsy.
If you compare the show with the more successful ‘Fleabag’ you’ll notice that the latter is too middle class to use anything other than Received Pronunciation, while Stath revels in accurately bizarre linguistics, because Jamie Demetriou has used what he’s heard all around him (as I imagine Phoebe Waller-Bridge did). My parents’ language was peppered with wartime slang. The remnants of our childhoods have a long survival rate.