The sad decline of key terms of abuse

Take this.

urgers_by_josh98052-d30l5gn

“Urger” was one of my father’s favourite terms of abuse. Google kept insisting I really meant “burgers” which is terribly culturally imperialist of it, and makes the joke above doubly funny. Josh Larsen, who took the photo, lives in Seattle so I can’t help wondering if he sees the joke I as an Australian see in it.

noun

Australian informal

  • a person who gives tips at a race meeting.

  • a person who takes advantage of others ; a racketeer:he was a free enterprise man — he thought all unionists were urgers

A comment on Language Log (Parliamentary decorum) by one Rob Weaver makes a further point:

There’s a little bit more to ‘urger’ than that. Specifically it means someone who encourages you to a risky or costly course of action that will benefit them significantly more than it might benefit you.

The term originally referred to a particular kind of race-course hustler who would give hot tips – one for each likely winner – to a selection of unconnected punters so as to be able, when inevitably one of the tips won, to appear at the elbow of the bettor whose pick had come first and wheedle a share of the winnings, or at least a free beer.

The post at Language Log is well worth repeating:

In the context of concerns about declining civility in American political discourse, Victor Steinbok points to a post at Vukutu on Australian Political Language, which quotes from "Mungo MacCallum’s great book, How to be a Megalomaniac, … a list of the terms of abuse which [former prime minister Paul] Keating  had used against his opponents duing his time in politics":

“harlots, sleazebags, frauds, immoral cheats, blackguards, pigs, mugs, clowns, boxheads, criminal intellects, criminals, stupid crooks, corporate crooks, friends of tax cheats, brain-damaged, loopy crims, stupid foul-mouthed grub, piece of criminal garbage, dullards, stupid, mindless, crazy, alley cat, bunyip aristocracy, clot, fop, gigolo, hare-brained, hillbilly, malcontent, mealy-mouthed, ninny, rustbucket, scumbag, scum, sucker, thug, dimwits, dummies, a swill, a pig sty, Liberal muck, vile constituency, fools and incompetents, rip-off merchants, perfumed gigolos, gutless spiv, glib rubbish, tripe and drivel, constitutional vandals, stunned mullets, half-baked crim, insane stupidities, champion liar, ghouls of the National Party, barnyard bullies, piece of parliamentary filth.”

"MacCallum notes that this listing is only of terms which Keating used in Federal Parliament, which of course has rules of decorum not applying in the rougher world outside."

We noted Keating’s way with words a few years ago ( "A tale of two Dons", 12/22/2003), and cited the Paul Keating Insults Page, which offers useful context for a large collection of insults, and also must be one of the few accessible pages that can trace a continuous history back to 1995.

a-spivThen there’s “spiv”.  Lovely word. There’s a great discussion of it on World Wide Words.

…Until recently, we have had no idea where the name comes from, which has given rise to a lot of uninformed speculation. It has indeed been said that it is VIPsbackwards; also that it was a police acronym forSuspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants. VIP does date from the same period, but it would be very surprising if it were the source. Apart from the sense being wrong, inverted acronyms based on word play were uncommon then. The police story is a well-meaning attempt at making sense of the matter.

An early appearance in print was in School for Scoundrels in 1934: “Spiv, petty crook who will turn his hand to anything so long as it does not involve honest work”. As a result of investigation in 2007 by a BBC television programme, Balderdash & Piffle, we have learned that the word was around earlier. Its first appearance in print is now known to be in a book of 1929, The Crooks of the Underworld, written under the pseudonym of C G Gordon; this included a reference to “a clique of Manchester ‘spives’”. We also have a better idea of the historical background to the term. The activities of an unsuccessful petty crook named Henry Bagster, a London newspaper seller and petty criminal of the early years of the early twentieth century, were widely reported at the time. Bagster’s court appearances for theft, selling counterfeit goods, assault, and loitering with intent to commit a felony were recorded in the British national press between 1903 and 1906. His nickname was “Spiv” recorded from 1904.

We don’t know why he was given that nickname, though it may indicate that the slang term was in use even then. The word itself may well have come from the dialect term spiving, smart, or spiff, a well-dressed man. This developed into the adjectivespiffy, smart or spruce, recorded from the 1850s, and also into spiffed up, smartly dressed. In The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green instead suggests the Romany spiv, a sparrow, which was used by gypsies, he says “as a derogatory reference to those who existed by picking up the leavings of their betters, criminal or legitimate”.

More distinctly Oz, I thought,  is “lurk merchant”The Urban Dictionary provides the following dialogues:

Dave: My boss goes away a lot and he asks me to mind his apartment.Last week his secretary came over not expecting to see me and was found out.I banged her in the boss’s bed and made a date for next time he’s out of town
Bob: Man!!! How did you get a lurk like that?

Stella: Maxine sucked up to the boss so she could take the company truck home just so she can drive around all weekend for free delivering pizzas.The tanks empty when she comes back on Monday morning.
Thelma: What a lurk merchant.

As my father used it the term rather more broadly referred to the kinds of unscrupulous business practices he found distressing and offensive to his own principles of integrity and honesty. (In the end my father didn’t do all that well in business.)

Then there was “two bob lair”.

Compare other expressions in Oz English that refer to someone who is angry, crazy or just eccentric — in other words, “out of their mind” in some way such as Mad as a cut snake, as a beetle, as a dingbat, as a frilled lizard, as a maggot, as a goanna, as a wet hen, as a gum-tree full of galahs. And as crazy as a tin full of worms, or as silly as a two bob watch. A two bob watch was some kind of badly made timepiece, often extended and used generally for anything cheap and nasty; expression dates from the 1950s. (Two bob “two shillings” appears to have been the amount of money most often used in derogatory expressions of worth; it referred generally to “inferior, rubbishy, useless”). You could compare the Oz expression two bob with US two bit as in he’s a two bit crook in other words, a crook of no note. (Other two bob expressions included: a two-bob lair 1940s “someone who dresses flashily, but cheaply”; go off like a two-bob etc. Both expressions like silly as a two bob watch and dead as door-nail, show the wondrous creativity of slang. If there were time it’d be nice to talk a bit about this constant renewal of expressions and the creativity of slang. – Kate Burridge.

I sometimes feel that the reason I don’t seem to hear these words so much these days is that the urgers, spivs, lurk merchants and lairs are now totally running the shop. What do you think?

On a brighter though still verbal note, I have become a late convert to SBS’s delightfully pointless game show Letters and Numbers.

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