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The idea of a secret or encoded language is ancient, with obvious appeal to teenagers, colleagues in an occupation, prisoners—any group, really, that feels the need or desire to exclude outsiders from its communication.
In English, children have Pig Latin, where the first sound is moved to the end of the word, followed by ‘ay’: thus “ellohay” = hello. It’s similar to jeringoso, jerigonso o jerigonza (all derived from Span. jerga, Engl. “jargon”), which is a bit more complex: after each syllable comes ‘p’ and the vowel repeated, thus hopolapa = hola (hello), sipi = sí (yes), grapaciapas = gracias (thanks).
El vesre (the word revés, or reverse, itself reversed) long popular in Argentina and Uruguay inverts the order of syllables, though sometimes only approximately: yobaca = caballo (horse), jermu = mujer (woman), viorsi = servicio (bathroom), dolape = pelado (bald-headed man), lompa = pantalón (pants), tidorpa = partido (game or match). When some action turns out to be useless, it’s common to hear vesre used in saying “fue al dope” (the phrase al pedo means useless, in vain; pedo itself means “fart” and thus the original sense of the phrase may well have been “as useless as a fart” or “like a fart in the wind”).
Victorian English back-slang was similar, though it inverted words letter-by-letter, rather than by syllable: “evig ti ot em” = give it to me. Apparently it was much used by shop clerks and street vendors to deceive customers.
Rhyming slang, a Cockney (East End of London) art, is great fun. Just a few examples: “slabs of meat” = feet, “trouble and strife” = wife. “Lee Marvin” = starvin’, “apples and pairs” = stairs, “bread and honey” = money. Often, further concealing the actual word intended, only the first part of the phrase is used, thus “I fell down the apples and broke me hand” = I fell down the stairs and broke my hand. So in rhyming slang, the rhyme is often implicit.
The verb to razz has its own amusing origin in rhyming slang. It means to jeer by using tongue and lips to imitate the sound of flatulence—and comes from “raspberry tart,” which is rhyming slang for “fart.” In the US, the same sound is also called a “Bronx cheer” (see illustration above).
Though none of these “languages” is hard to decode on paper, it’s not hard to imagine that when spoken at high speed they can be quite effective for secret communication. Quite apart from that use, these kinds of word play appeal to many users of language simply because they are fun and offer an arena for verbal creativity.
Good words! … ¡Buenas palabras!
Copyright ©2014 by Pablo J. Davis. All rights reserved.
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT, is an ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and a Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (Engl<>Span). An earlier version of this essay was originally published in the Mar. 2-8, 2014 edition of La Prensa Latina, Memphis, Tennessee, as part of the weekly bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.”