Twenty-Five Of The Gang

The death penalty, execution by hanging, brought an end to many a criminal’s career. Those for whom such a gruesome ending could be foreseen were told hemp’s grown for you, meaning that their name was already on an executioner’s cord. The rope used to hang convicted felons was made from flax which, in turn, came from hemp.

To avoid a life of crime might be described as hill-top literature, sound advice. When cycling took of in the latter part of the 19th century, it was customary for boards to be positioned at the top of a steep hill warning cyclists of the steepdescent in front of them.James Ware, in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, tells the tale of a cyclist in Ireland (natch) who hurtled down a steep and dangerous hill and was surprised not to see a board with the usual warnings. When he got to the bottom of the hill, he found a sign proclaiming that “This hill is dangerous to cyclists”.

A phrase which I will endeavour to use when the occasion arises is to introduce the cobbler to the tailor, a marvellously vivid and inventive way to kick someone up the backside.

Kodaking is a fascinating example of the use of new technology to develop slang. It derived from what Ware described as the snap=shot photographic camera, named after its inventor, and was used to describe the practice of surreptitiously obtaining information. It was used in a theatre review of Sir Henry Irving’s performance in Richard III; “our eyes are riveted on his face, we are interested in the workings of his mind, we are secretly kodaking every expression, however slight”.     

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