An occasional comment on language by Alan Lloyd
Broadcaster John Humphrys and linguistics guru David Crystal clashed recently over whether texting is wrecking our language. i Humphrys, arguing it is vandalism, said Crystal was infuriating; Crystal, who suggests texting actually improves literacy, in effect finds Humphrys a Luddite, and he has had a similar go at Lynne Truss of punctuation fame. ii To an expert like Crystal who uses a descriptive approach, what matters is context, which tends to be ignored by the prescriptivists.
I thought I would do my own bit of descriptive investigation. Remember how, in the sixties, the word ‘cool’ came to mean excellent or admirable and in the eighties, young people replaced this with ‘wicked’? Wondering what was currently in vogue among London’s teenagers, I consulted my street-savvy daughter and discovered that ‘nang’ has a similar meaning today, as in “Cor, dass nang” iii or “Last night was so nang”. iv It is frequently qualified by ‘proper’ or ‘bare’, the latter a neologism formed by zero derivation (i.e. with an opposite meaning), signifying ‘very’ or ‘a lot of’, as in “Dizzee’s album is bare nang”. v Meanwhile, people may also be described as ‘a nanger’ or ‘nanging’, indicating absorption of the root word into English with standard morphemes.
The origins of ‘nang’ meaning cool are more problematical. Ignoring proper nouns and nonsense words, the earliest recorded use of the word ‘nang’ I can find is January 2002, vi but I have found no reference yet in a standard printed dictionary, though there are plenty of references online. In an interview for the BBC Voices Project on 22 August 2005, Sue Fox, a sociolinguist at Queen Mary College, University of London, identified ‘nang’ as part of a new inner London dialect emerging among young people as a mixture of English and Bangladeshi. vii Resulting from research carried out in Tower Hamlets, Fox found that traditional cockney is being influenced and modified by Bangladeshi and other forms of speech, both in terms of accent and terminology, and that white British teenagers in the same area speak this way as well.
But the suggestion that ‘nang’ is actually derived from a Bangladeshi word has proved difficult to substantiate. Philip Hensher, reviewing Sue Fox’s findings in the Independent agreed, and pointed out that Bangladeshi in any case is not a language but a nationality, whose people speak Bengali or a dialect version called Sylheti. viii Hensher consulted his partner, whose first language is Bengali, but the latter had never heard the word.
David Crystal, also in response to Fox’s research, suggests that this pattern is commonly to be found in cities elsewhere in the UK, “where people are keen to develop a strong sense of local identity”, ix while in his book, The Stories of English, he says that “slang primarily exists to foster rapport among individuals who wish to express their sense of belonging to a social group”. x As to whether this is in order to be cohesive within a given group or to be divided off from adult culture—the answer is probably both.
Curious to know how far the use of ‘nang’ has spread, I have discovered its use on BBC websites covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Birmingham. xi Maybe it is not surprising to find it in Ipswich, relatively close to London, while Birmingham has mixed communities similar to London’s East End. Oddly, though, I have not been able to find instances of ‘nang’ being used in the home counties, and a check with four teenagers I know in rural Herefordshire revealed that they had not heard of the term at all.
As for the durability of such neologisms, an article by Michele Kirsch in The Times, who interviewed a bunch of schoolgirls at Islington Green School, reveals “that they all say ‘nang’, but even that is kind of old, and it is better to say ‘shabby’, ‘gunny’, ‘grimy’”. . .a timely reminder that language renews and decays. xii
Investigating ‘nang’ reminded me of slang words found in papers belonging to my great-grandfather, who taught in Adult Schools in Birmingham in the 19th century. Writing about the kind of men they wanted to attract into school, he referred to “the hobbledehoy – larrican it may be or peaky blinder – young men who [are] in such dire need for something to keep them from temptations to drink, to gamble or to fight” (great-grandfather was a teetotaller).
I have been unable to find the phrase ‘peaky blinder’ in any dictionary, but online there is a reference to a book, Working Lads’ Clubs, which mentions “the incorrigible ‘ike’, the ‘hooligan’, the peaky blinder’”, with a footnote to the effect that ‘ike’ and ‘peaky blinder ‘ are respectively the Manchester and Birmingham equivalents of the London ‘hooligan’. xiii
Chambers Dictionary cites ‘hobbledehoy’ as an awkward youth, while ‘larrican’, more usually spelt larrikin, is an Australian term for a hooligan. xiv The origin is doubtful, but there is possibly a connection with larking about or it is Cornish for a rowdy youth. Wikipedia, however, suggests it originated in the Black Country and meant someone who ‘mouthed off’. xv Because the Black Country is adjacent to Birmingham, maybe great-grandfather knew it from Brum, but he also visited Australia in 1883, so could equally have picked it up there. Checking online, I find it still in use in Australia, and Germaine Greer used it recently in a Guardian article about Steve Irwin, who died after his encounter with a stingray. xvi Now there, surely, was a peaky blinder more than a nanger . . .
References [as web links]
i) 2b or not 2b, Guardian, 5 Jul 2008
ii) Crace, John, Gr8 db8r takes on linguistic luddites, Guardian, 16 Sep 2008
iii) The Online Dictionary of Playground Slang
iv) The Urban Dictionary
v) BBC website, Music Division, ‘Urban review’ webpage
vi) CBBC Newsround webpage
vii) BBC press release, 22 Aug 2005
viii) Hensher, Philip, Rejoice that rhyming slang is no longer ‘nang’, Independent, 23 Aug 2005
ix) see ref. (vii)
x) Crystal, David, The Stories of English (London: Penguin Books, 2005)
xi) BBC Norfolk
xii) Kirsch, Michele, How to be nang, Times, 30 Jan 2006
xiii) Russell, C.E.B. & Rigby, L.M., Working Lads’ Clubs (London: Macmillan & Co., 1908) via Infed website, http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/lads_clubs3.htm#one
xiv) The Chambers Dictionary, 10th edition (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2006)
xv) Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larrikinism
xvi) Greer, Germaine, That sort of self-delusion is what it takes to be a real Aussie larrikin, Guardian, 5 Sep 2006http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/sep/05/australia
Lynne Truss with apostrophe
John Henry Lloyd
A sepia photograph of Alan Lloyd’s great-grandfather, John Henry Lloyd, taken in Brisbane in 1885 when he was 28 and possibly learning about larrikins . . .
Alan Lloyd retired to London from Herefordshire. He remains a trustee and founder member of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, which he also used to organise.
Photo: Judy Lloyd