I don’t usually speak from a script at lit fests, but as I had just had Covid when the HULF Festival of Words* came around, I didn’t want to rely on my slightly fuzzy memory. Having written the script for my affectionate talk about the use of slang in school stories, I hung on to it, so that I could share it with you today here on my blog.
*HULF is the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which I founded in my home village in 2015, and which has been running public events in various venues about the parish ever since.
(My talk followed the one by Colin Dixon, Tower Captain of the bell ringers of St Mary’s, Hawkesbury, who fascinated us with the colourful Language of Bells.)
Having taken up bell ringing with Colin, I know from first hand that learning the jargon that goes with bell ringing gives you a sense of camaraderie with your fellow bellringers. I’m going to talk now about shared jargon or slang in a different peer group – that of schoolchildren in a school setting.
Slang is especially important for young people in their formative years at school – all the more so if your school takes you away from home, so that during term time at least, school is your home.
Early in their history, boarding schools developed their own brand of slang – in particular, boys’ schools, because for many years there were no girls’ boarding schools. Because so many of them were hotbeds of the Classics – and perhaps also because it sounded impressive – much of this slang derived from Latin, so that the term for a short holiday is an exeat, the subjunctive of exit, meaning “Let him go away”. Winchester’s masters, are called dons, from dominus, Latin for master. (The most traditional public schools don’t call their staff teachers – they’re all masters or mistresses.) Eton’s dames – their word for matrons or housemistresses – comes from the Latin domina. A swot is called a sap, which comes from the Latin sapiens, meaning to know. And so on.
The slang of the longest-established and most prestigious schools was often adopted by minor public schools and the latecomers, but some words remain the preserve of their originating school because they relate to local geography. In the days when boys spent a lot of time studying the Bible, which yielded useful source of nicknames. The stream running through the playing fields of Eton is known as Jordan, and the place where the boys washed at Winchester was called Moab, taken from line 8 of Psalm 60, “Moab is my wash-pot”.
Winchester College even has a word for its own slang: notions, and learning the Winchester Notions is a rite of passage for new pupils.
Those few examples give you a flavour of the endless list, and if you are hungry for more, there is a fabulous book from 1900 available to read for free online via the Gutenberg Project – The Public School Word Book by John S Farmer that runs to 100 pages. (Click here to read it online.)
As someone who worked for 13 years in what was then a girls’ public school, now co-ed, at Westonbirt, and who is writing a series of novels set in a fictitious girls’ boarding school, (of which the 4th will be published on 29th July, Artful Antics at St Bride’s, I have a special interest in boarding school slang. But my love of school slang goes back to my own childhood, when, educated in state day schools, I was reading stories about boarding schools.
Ah, Enid Blyton, you might be thinking – Malory Towers, St Clare’s, or even the more exotic Chalet School, set in the Austrian Tyrol.
Actually, I preferred books about boys’ boarding schools, in particular two series that had a very special slang of their own: Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth (memorably illustrated by Ronald Searle, also known for his cartoons of the girls’ boarding school, St Trinian’s.
Both authors had worked as schoolmasters in minor preparatory boarding schools and had witnessed at first hand how young boys wrangled and mangled the English language to serve their needs for self-expression.
I wanted to be in their gang. I wanted to call a good idea “a wizard wheeze”, and a terrible mistake “a massive bish”, as Jennings did, and to voice my indignation with a Molesworthian “chiz chiz chiz”.
If you’re already familiar with these characters’ creative approach to the English language, you’ll enjoy the passages I’m about to share, and if not, I hope these snippets will encourage you to try them – because you’re never too old to enjoy this schoolboy humour. Jennings was written for children of his age, reading as an adult you empathise with the masters. Molesworth, however, was written for adults, first appearing in Punch, and whatever age you are, it’s hard not to take his side.
Here’s an extract from Down with Skool, in which Molesworth considers the awful prospect of starting a formal education (the spelling is Molesworth’s own):
It seems strange that all the tuough boys around with faces like wild baboons started life as babes in prams chiz chiz chiz. I mean you kno wot weeds babes are they like about and gurgle and all the lades sa icky pritty and other uterly wet things.
Being a baby is alright but soon all the boys who hav been wearing petticoats chiz chiz chiz begin to get bigger, they start zooming around like jet fights climb drane pipes squirt water pistols make aple pie beds set booby traps leave tools about the garden refuse to be polite to visiting aunts run on the flower beds make space rockets out of pop’s golf bag and many other japes and pranks.
It is at this time that parents look thortfully at their dear chicks and sa
IT IS TIME WE SENT NIGEL TO SKOOL.
(Extract © Geoffrey Willans)
In the following extract from Jennings Goes to School, new pupil Jennings is trying to get to grips with the slang at Linbury Court Preparatory School:
“I say, Venables, what’s that master’s name?”
With an effort, Venables descended from the sublime to the ridiculous. “Were you talking to me?”
“Yes. That master. What did you say his name was?”
“That’s Benedick,” replied Venables. “We all call him that, anyway. Actually, his name’s Mr Carter.”
“Why call him something else?” demanded Jennings.
“Well, you heard him say grace just now. Benedictus and all that. And after meals, he says, ‘benedico, benedictata'”
Jennings waited in case more explanation was forthcoming, but it wasn’t.
“Go on,” he said.
“I’ve just told you,” said Venables, with the patience reserved for imbeciles. “Benedictus – Benedick Carter.”
“Oh,” said Jennings. “Is that a joke?”
“You’re a bit thick, aren’t you?” replied Venables.
(Extract © Anthony Buckeridge)
When I came to write my own boarding school stories, which are set in the 21st century, I had a different challenge to contend with: to make them credible, sadly, the pupils would have to swear. However, I write in a genre known as cozy mystery, which is meant to be family-friendly – no sex, no graphic violence, and no bad language – or else there will be complaints! So I came up with a workaround that is effectively a different kind of school slang, as you’ll see from this passage from the first in my school series, Dastardly Deeds at St Bride’s, in which Miss Gemma Lamb, the newly arrived English teacher, is being shown the ropes by her mentor, Miss Oriana Bliss, Head of Maths:
“I suppose swearing is against school rules,” I said.
“You’re right. It doesn’t stop them though. The girls swear in code instead. They think the staff haven’t rumbled it, but there’s a key to the code in the alternative prospectus secretly published by the sixth formers. We’ve had a copy in the staffroom for years.”
She led me around a corner to a long, dark corridor. “Rather cleverly, they’ve devised a system based on quaint expletives culled from school stories of yesteryear. ‘Blinking’, ‘cripes’, ‘flipping’ and so on sound innocuous until you discover they’re all paired with alliterative equivalents in the modern vernacular. When they say ‘blinking’, they’re thinking ‘bloody’. We turn a deaf ear to them callig each other a ‘flipping beast’ or whatever, until they slip up, double-compensating, and say the rea swear words by mistake. The other girls are genuinely shocked when that happens, and of course we staff have to pretend to be terribly cross.’
Like the pupils of St Bride’s, I think I’ve got away with it.
PS The day after the Festival, we had a guest preacher at the service in St Mary’s, the Reverend Tim Novis, who is Senior Chaplain at Marlborough College. When our vicar, the Reverend Richard Thomson, in his introduction, asked Tim whether he had a chaplain to help him at Marlborough, his reply was classic boarding school slang: “No, just eager beaks” (beaks means teachers – or masters, as public schools prefer to call them!)
PPS A week after the Festival of Words, I was amused to discover on starting to read the second Chalet School story, Jo of the Chalet School, by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, first published in 1926, when the girls are banned from using slang such as “top-hole” and “ripping”, and told to read the classics to improve their language, they come up with an ingenious response. They become adept in the use of the slang in Shakespeare’s plays instead!
For more information about the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, and to keep up with its future events, visit www.hulitfest.com.