crime is remarkably pragmatic

by Art Chantry (

the dark sleazy underbelly of the victorian cultural era criminal is extremely well-chronicled in this old dog-eared paperback book (found in a thrift store for 50ยข.) written by Kellow Chesney (great name, eh?), The Victorian Underworld (penguin books, 1976 reprint) is horrifyingly dark and depraved and at times downright disgusting. in fact, it’s sort of like the world that is emerging around us today. it’s about class and money and power at it’s highest level of hubris.

---the image is taken from gustave dore.---AC

this little book is one of those scholarly, extremely well-researched tomes that stands up in academia – yet is still a fun and interesting read. like all crime books, it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. you can’t take your eyes off it, but it’s too awful to look at. and this particular era is one of the great stepping stones into our own way of social justice. the lessons learned (and the lessons ignored) during this period in england’s history set the standard and the model for the next century. it also set the general structure of behavior for crime even today. it seems that crime is remarkably pragmatic.

all that aside, the reason i post this thing is that, in the back, it has a brief ‘glossary of terms’. the verbiage of the period of so rich and glorious and delicious to repeat that that glossary of criminal terminology from the victorian criminal world is worth any effort to find this little book. where else would you ever learn that a ‘nemmo’ is a woman? or that a ‘deadlurk’ is an empty premises? or that ‘crabshells’ refers to shoes? these words are so colorful and descriptive and cool that it makes me want to start talking in rhyming slang like a cockney.

but, even more interesting is how many words we use today find their origins in this early criminal slang. for instance, ever wonder where the term “pig” (meaning a policeman) ever came from? well, it was in use during the victorian meaning exactly the same thing as it did in the 1960′s counterculture. other words that are direct carry-overs with exactly the same meaning as we use them today include: flash, hoist, lay, lurker, lush, moocher, mouth, nail, nose, stall, stir, stretch, swag, tail. and think in terms of how they’d be used in criminal world thought. for instance ‘stir’ is ‘jail’ – just like today.

even better are words that are obvious sources that became slightly altered by the time of today’s use. the meaning is sort of the same, but different. for instance, ‘stiff’ referred to paper currency. so much counterfeit money and documents were exchanged back then that you were probably going to get bad paper money. so, eventually it changed from a noun to a verb and became the action of cheating somebody in your confidence. and did you know that back then a 3-month jail sentence was called a ‘drag’? and i’ll bet it was, too.

so, remember, the next time you use the terms “flying the blue pigeon” (stealing roof lead) or ‘twirl’ (a skeleton key) or ‘on the randy’ (on a spree) – just remember where you got it.

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