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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Lee Grimsditch

Scouse 'back-slang' Curtis Warren used to confuse police

The translation of a language used by Liverpool's criminal underworld was used as evidence in the conviction of drug kingpin Curtis Warren.

Known as back-slang, the use of the modified English has been associated with criminal activity since Victorian times. However, it's not solely used by criminals, it was once a common sound on the streets of Liverpool during people's childhoods.

If you wandered past a group of children in the city from the 1960s through to the 1990s, your ear may have caught onto what sounded like gibberish, but was in fact, back-slang. In Warren's case, he picked up back-slang as a young dealer on the streets of Toxteth.

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During investigations into Warren's drug empire in the 1990s, Dutch police tapped the Toxteth crime bosses' telephone conversations for weeks before his arrest. In 2013, the ECHO reported on Warren's use of a "twisted tongue of drugs backslang" and codewords to "bamboozle anyone listening in" to his phone calls.

This included: "Variants of rhyming slang and inserting rogue syllables into words were among ways Warren and his cronies would discuss their trade." The drugs boss "conscious not to speak too freely on the telephone" reportedly conducted conversations with an associate, describing cocaine - slang for which is 'white' - as 'wh-ab-ite."

The career criminal, who was at one point so rich he made the Sunday Times Rich List, was freed after spending 14-years in prison last year. But he wasn't the only underworld gang member to use back-slang.

In the 1980s, a number of court cases reported in the Liverpool ECHO involving armed robberies described the use of back-slang by those accused. On December 7, 1983, the ECHO reported on a court case involving a gang of "burglars and robbers" using a "secret language to confuse victims and police."

The ECHO said the prosecutor in the case told the jury: "They are given to speaking a kind of back-slang which sounds rather like Greek. There was some difficulty as the officers could not understand them."

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In another court case on a "terrifying" series of robberies of pub restaurants in 1989, the ECHO reported: "During three attacks, the team used 'back-slang' - a secret communication method used by children involving adding an extra syllable to each word".

But it wasn't just criminals who used back-slang. Former Radio Merseyside producer and presenter, Wally Scott, recounted his own experience of hearing another form of back-slang during his own youth.

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In the 'Mersey Memories' column he wrote for the ECHO alongside his radio partner-in-crime, Billy Butler, in 1996, Scott recalled the back-slang of his own childhood, saying: "Back-slang was another craze where you would pronounce words backwards. I knew kids who could talk backwards and hold real conversations. It would sound like Bill and Ben being bevvied. I could only do my own name backwards."

It appears, from people's experiences, there were different variations of back-slang common on the streets of Liverpool at different times. The one Wally Scott remembers describes pronouncing words backwards (hence the term 'back-slang') that has its origins in the late 19th century and early 20th century (although likely much earlier).

In an article on slang in the Liverpool Daily Post on November 20, 1902, a journalist wrote: "How many of us know the origin of the application of the word 'slop' to 'police'? It appears that there was a back-slang in use apparently to disguise the actual words. Hence the word 'police' would be made into 'ecilop,' and hence the word 'slop'."

Similarly Warren's version of back-slang also appears to have a history going back at least as far. In another article on language and slang in the Liverpool Daily Post on August 4, 1887, it references the work of a professor of languages, who observed the adding of extra syllables to French words as a form of back-slang.

The article said: "[It] appears to be as common in French as the curtailment of words (tecs for detectives and such like) in our own mother tongue. But while English slang lacks the punning variety of the French, there are two forms of native manufacture - to wit, back-slang and rhyming-slang - which, although entirely artificial, play a notable part in the vernacular of the vulgar".

This version of adding extra syllables to words, like Warren used, is a variation of Pig-Latin. The definition of Pig-Latin describes: "A secret language formed from English by transferring the initial consonant or consonant cluster of each word to the end of the word and adding a vocalic syllable [...] so 'Pig Latin' would be 'igpay atinlay'."

The common Pig-Latin variation of back-slang used in Liverpool, is perhaps best described by former ECHO journalist, Joe Riley. In his column on January 24, 1992, he explained Liverpudlians use of back-slang as a form of "Pig-Latin, once much spoken in Liverpool as a sort of semi-criminal back-slang for spivs. You simply put the addition of an AG (pronounced Aig) before every vowel sound.

"Thus John Smith comes out as Jag-ohn Smag-ith, (ag-if yag-ou gag-et mag-y mag-eanag-ing!)"

Did you learn back-slang growing up? Let us know in the comments section below.


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