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Convict slang was so hard to understand non-convicts needed a dictionary of “flash” language to communicate

Jeff Whalley, August 25, 2019 6:45PM Herald Sun

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Simon Barnard reading his new book about convict slang to his dog Tuco, surrounded by convict artefacts. Picture: Alex Coppel media_cameraSimon Barnard reading his new book about convict slang to his dog Tuco, surrounded by convict artefacts. Picture: Alex Coppel

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Reading level: orange

Do you know what a fibbing gloak, a milling cove or a brisket beater are?

If the answer is no and you’re planning to time travel back 200 years to the convict colonies of Australia, you’d better study Australia’s first dictionary, A New and Comprehensive* Vocabulary of the Flash Language before you get into your time machine.

The good news is the dictionary has been republished to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its original release in 1819.

The dictionary was a bestseller at the time and essential reading to understand what the convicts were saying.

It was a clever idea from a not-so clever convict.

James Hardy Vaux was born in 1782 in Surrey, England. He was from a respectable family and well educated.

But, as Melbourne author, artist and collector of colonial artefacts* Simon Barnard discovered, Vaux had a big problem: He loved committing crimes.

Australian convict James Hardy Vaux, circa 1825 media_cameraAustralian convict James Hardy Vaux, circa 1825

While he could have led a normal, comfortable life, Barnard said Vaux preferred a “rakish* life of villainy*”.

“He is a funny guy and a wit. He enjoyed being cheeky,” Barnard said.

Vaux was transported from England to Australia three times — in 1801, 1810 and 1831.

He admitted to an indecipherable* range of crimes including “buzzing, drugging, sneaking, hoisting, pinching, smashing, jumping, spanking, and starring, together with the kid-rig, the letter-racket, the order-racket and the snuff-racket”. (No wonder they needed a dictionary).

Vaux was one of the 164,000 convicts transported from British and Irish ports to the Australian colonies.

Barnard’s James Hardy Vaux’s 1819 Dictionary of Criminal Slang and Other Impolite Terms as used by the Convicts of the British Colonies of Australia with Additional True Stories, Remarkable Facts and Illustrations re-releases Vaux’s dictionary for its 200th anniversary.

Barnard’s first book, A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, won the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books in the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year awards in 2015.

“I found a book on Vaux in a box of books I bought at auction when I was a kid of 13 or 14,” he said.

“I hung onto it and revisited it and couldn’t believe Australia’s first dictionary was compiled by a thrice-transported* villain.”

media_cameraPart of a drawing called “Gentlemen convicts at work and the convict ‘centiped’”, Port Arthur, Tasmania, 1836 by JW Beattie. Source: National Library of Australia

The newly published volume reproduces Vaux’s dictionary in full and Barnard also used newspapers and other documents of the time to weave in stories of Australia’s convict days.

Barnard said Vaux’s motivation to write the text was anything but noble. The convicted crim was simply trying to ingratiate* himself with his new masters after finding himself imprisoned in the Newcastle penal station in 1812.

As Barnard explained, the magistrates* couldn’t understand the coded world of criminal slang — a deliberately obtuse* language known only to the underclass. Convict language was so complicated and unfamiliar to non convicts they had to use translators when convicts appeared in court.

media_camera“Landing of Convicts at Botany Bay” from Captain Watkin Tench’s A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, first published in 1789. These and the thousands more convicts that came to Australia from 1788 onwards brought their own language, designed to confuse authorities.

Vaux’s book was published in England and sent back to Australia, where it was commonly found in courts. An original version sold seven years ago for more than $20,000.

Barnard’s reworking of Vaux’s dictionary is full of yarns of Australia’s early convict years, with the weird and wonderful terminology* of the time woven through the stories.

For instance, the curious crime of stealing the ladder used by night men who had to lower themselves into cesspits* to haul out human refuse with buckets was known as “knapping a Jacob from a danna-drag”.

Or there’s the story of George Jones, the bushranging companion of Martin Cash, who was caught after being shot in the face. He could not see as his eyes (“lamps”) were severely injured.

“Me lamps is ‘queer’ (sore or weak),” he complained. “Will they scrag (“hang”) a blind cove?”

Some of the slang of the time became part of mainstream language.

“Words such as seedy, serve, snitch, snooze, square and stash are now commonplace. Swag is the origin of swagman, and grog still means grog,” Barnard said.

Vaux disappeared from history after his release in 1841, when he was 59.

media_cameraArtwork by George William Evans of Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) of convicts working, 1828.

CONVICT SLANG YOU MAY NOT KNOW

  • fibbing gloak: boxer
  • milling cove: boxer
  • brisket beater: catholic
  • flash: the name for the language of convict slang
  • kinchen: boy
  • Betty: lock picker
  • up in the stirrups: a man who has lots of money
  • swoddy: soldier
  • toddler: elderly, frail person
  • bit-faker: convict transported for making counterfeit coins
  • chiv: knife
  • hopper-dockers: shoes
  • spoony: foolish or drunk man
  • quod: jail
  • pebble: badly behaved convict
  • bum-trap: sheriff or debt collector

GLOSSARY

  • comprehensive: covers everything; complete
  • artefacts: historical objects made by humans
  • rakish: dashing, jaunty and slightly cheeky
  • villainy: being a villain
  • indecipherable: impossible to understand
  • thrice-transported: three times transported
  • ingratiate: bring yourself into favour
  • magistrates: judges
  • obtuse: deliberately and annoyingly difficult to understand
  • terminology: technical language of a particular group of experts
  • cesspits: septic tank for human waste

EXTRA READING

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Teen slang leaves parents behind

Aussie accents on the move

Aussie lingo a living, thriving language

Cheeseslaw officially a word

QUICK QUIZ

  1. When was the dictionary first published?
  2. How many convicts were transported to Australia from British and Irish ports?
  3. How did Simon Barnard find out about Vaux’s dictionary?
  4. Why was Vaux in Australia?
  5. List three words used now that were convict slang.

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Convict slang challenge
Not that we want to inspire you to be convicts, but can you speak like a ‘pebble’?

With a partner, use your ‘lamps’ to find the words and phrases used in the article and the list at the end to help you write a conversation using as many ‘flash’ words and phrases as you can.

Pretend you and a fellow convict are chatting while you are sitting in your cell at night. Your conversation will need to make sense so you will need to find a way to link the words and phrases given in your conversation.

Now write the translation so that your teacher can understand what you are talking about.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Sciences – History, Critical and Creative thinking

2. Extension
What do you think happened to James Hardy Vaux?

Use the information in the article to write a short (2-paragraph) biography of James Hardy Vaux.

Your first paragraph should summarise the information known about him from the article. The second paragraph should be what you think happened after his release. Did he turn his life around and become a good citizen? Did he get married or get a job? Did he return to England? Did he return to a life of crime or did something terrible befall him? You can use your imagination, but you should try and make it sound a likely story of the time.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Sciences – History, Critical and Creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What’s your favourite convict slang? Use it in a sentence.
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in history