Many readers enjoy British movies, sit-coms and soaps. At the same time, these fans sometimes have no idea what those Brits are saying.
Since we use their language, we do understand standard English vocabulary. It’s their slang that baffles us.
In both Coronation Street and EastEnders, police have recently played a big role. Let’s take a look at British slang attached to police officers, their jobs, and those they pursue and apprehend.
In these soaps, police are seldom called police. Rather, they are “scuffers,” “rozzers,” “plods,” “peelers,” “The Old Bill,” “bobbies,” “coppers,” “the filth,” and perhaps, “the boys.”
Rozzer, from 1893, has an unknown origin, but bobby (1844), is directly from the short form of Robert, the first name of Sir Robert Peel who, in 1828, founded London’s Metropolitan Police. Interestingly, Peel’s surname, showing up as peeler, gets the same treatment in Ireland. Robert Peel also established the Irish Constabulary.
Copper, from 1846, probably arose from an early 1700s slang expression, “to cop” (to arrest). The Old Bill is from a First World War cartoon character. This term alludes to the police as an institution, not to individual officers.
A grass is a police informer. So are squeak, snout and nose. Nose, from 1789, originally was someone who informed on fellow criminals. About 1910, nose, in the sense of “informer,” evolved into its synonym, snout.
Squeak is even older, having first been noted in 1670. Grass and its verb form, to grass, are relative newcomers (1932), but snitch goes back to 1789.
Unsurprisingly, we also find slang attached to the way police work. Thus, what we know as a “line-up” is an identity parade in Britain. A cruiser car is a panda. To have your collar felt is “to be arrested.” This latter term was almost immediately shortened to to collar. From the early 1500s, to nap meant “to catch.”
Flowery (prison cell) is short for flowery bell, Cockney rhyming slang for “cell.”
The Clink dates to 1785. It originated in a Southwark, London, prison where inmates were known as clinkers. It’s thought the term arose from the clinking of their chains.
Chokey (choky), first noted in 1873, is a reminder of the days of Empire. The word is from the Hindi for “shed” —cauki.
Quod (1700) is the oldest slang we have for “prison.” Scholars have been unable to trace quod’s origin.
Time (1837), solitary (1854) and stretch (1821) are all British slang terms for being imprisoned. A sixer (1849) is a six-month sentence. A trey (tray), from 1887, means a three-year sentence. To slough (mid-19th century) is “to lock up.”
We’ve all heard of jail-birds, meaning “prisoners.” Gaol-bird is from 1618. Lag, also meaning “prisoner,” is from 1812.
The British even have a slang expression for “prisoner-of-war.” Originating in 1944, krieger was applied to any serviceman who was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Second World War. The word is an abbreviation of the German word das Kriegsgefangener (prisoner-of-war).
(Sources: Knickers in a Twist; Oxford Dictionary of Slang; Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.)