‘Deck him, Faz.’
When I overheard those words in the dinner queue on my first day at Bournville School, I truly knew I had arrived in another country. That summer (1980), we’d moved from Norwich to Birmingham, uprooting me from a sleepy cathedral city (to which I’d later return) and pitching me into a bustling multicultural conurbation.
Over the next few months, I had to get up to speed with the playground lingo – fast. To save you the trouble if you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s a brief guide to the second language of the second city.
Ace adj. Excellent; bosting. Not confined to Birmingham, but used incessantly when I was at school there. The wonderful Brummie accent renders this word closer to the way southerners say ‘ice’.
All right A standard greeting, often delivered more as a statement than a question (‘All right, Tom.’). The correct response is ‘all right’. It is not necessary to give any information concerning your welfare.
Babby, bab n. Literally, a baby. Figuratively, ‘bab’ is a term of endearment or friendship; combine with ‘all right’ to give the greeting ‘All right, bab’. If you’re a barmaid, dinner lady or similar, you can get away with using it on strangers. Near-equivalent to ‘duck’ in the East Midlands, ‘luv’ in the north, ‘darlin’ in the south and ‘hen’ in Scotland.
Back of Rackhams n. A mythical red-light district. Rackhams is a large department store in Birmingham city centre, now owned by House of Fraser. To ‘go round the back of Rackhams’ meant to work as a prostitute.
Batter vt. To beat soundly in a scrap. Also used hyperbolically for any sort of skirmish, however minor.
Bomb vi. To travel quickly, usually on wheels (e.g. a bike or skateboard). ‘Let’s bomb down the shop for some rocks.’
Borrow vt. To lend. ‘Can you borrow us 10p for the buzz?’ (In the early 1980s, you could ride anywhere in Birmingham for 10p during off-peak hours. The lowest fare was 2p.)
Bosting adj. Very good; smashing. ‘Bost’ is Black Country slang for ‘break’ (‘bust’), but I only ever heard this metaphorical usage; people never talked about ‘bosting a window’.
Brassings n. pl. Like gruffings, this taunt indicated that your interlocutor had been proved wrong, or that their knowledge had turned out to be incomplete in some way. Accompanied by a twisting finger applied to the side of the neck. Possibly derived from ‘brass neck’ somehow?
Buzz n. Bus. The ‘s’ was always pronounced ‘zz’. Note also that the ‘u’ sounds like the vowel in ‘foot’.
Chobble vt. To loudly and prematurely crunch a foodstuff, probably confectionery, with the teeth. ‘Don’t chobble yer rocks!’
Cob n. A bread roll, but not only in the Midlands. Also, to ‘get a cob on’ is to go into a huff or become mardy.
Crash vt. To distribute generously. Hence ‘Crash the rocks!’ – an invitation or instruction to hand out your sweets to those present.
Crip n. A potato crisp (US: potato chip). For some reason, it was customary to omit the ‘s’.
Deck vt. To knock someone to the floor.
Deff vt. To decide against, not bother with or opt out of. ‘Let’s get some rocks!’ ‘Nah, deff it man.’
Doss vi, n. As a verb, it means to mess about and/or waste time. ‘They spent all of General Studies dossing around in the library.’ As a noun, it denotes an opportunity for, or specific instance of, dossing. ‘General Studies is a total doss.’
Gambol n. A forward roll. A usage sufficiently well established to be deployed by our PE teachers.
Gruffings n. pl. As a taunt or exclamation, ‘gruffings’ indicated that your interlocutor had been shown to be wrong, ignorant or inferior in some way. It was normally accompanied by a beard-evoking chin-stroking hand gesture on the thrust-forward lower jaw. See also Brassings.
Hard knock n. A tough person, badass. The stress falls on ‘hard’.
Jacksy adj. Lucky. Elsewhere in the UK it’s a synonym for ‘arse’, but not in Brum. ‘You got out of PE? You jacksy bastard!’
Leg vi, vt. As an intransitive verb, to flee: ‘leg it!’ As a transitive verb, to pursue vigorously: ‘leg him!’
Mardy adj. Sulky, peevish or irritable. (Not exclusive to Birmingham.)
Marlies n. Glass marbles.
Outdoor n. An off-licence (US: liquor store). None of these near my school though – the Cadburys, staunch Quakers, forbade alcohol to be sold anywhere in Bournville, a rule still upheld today.
Pearl & Dean bashings n. This ritual probably wasn’t observed beyond my immediate circle of friends, but you never know. Before a group visit to the cinema, one of the party would be nominated (unbeknownst to them) as the recipient of the bashing. When the Pearl & Dean music came on, everyone else would pummel them. Optional extras included punching in time with the music, singing along (‘ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba-ba’) and shouting ‘Pearl & Dean bashings!’
Pill n. A ball, especially a rugby ball.
Pumps n. Plimsolls.
Rock n. Confectionery item, hence ‘rocks’ meaning sweets. Normally applied to individual sweets such as Polos rather than bars such as Twix.
Scramble vt. To crash your rocks by throwing them into the air in the classroom or playground. Only really worked with wrapped sweets, e.g. Opal Fruits. Accompanying shout of ‘Scramble!’ optional.
Scrap n. A fight, usually one-on-one. At school, the slightest physical altercation would instantly result in the combatants being surrounded by a ring of excited onlookers chanting ‘Scrap! Scrap! Scrap!’
Skill adj. Excellent, superlative. Often used as an exclamation: ‘Ah, skill!’
Solid adj. Unusually difficult or challenging. ‘Physics is solid, man.’
Start vi. To fight. To ‘start on’ someone was to attack them. Boys squaring up would incite each other by saying ‘Come on then, start!’ – usually for about ten minutes, without any blow being struck, until a teacher arrived.
Stinger n. Stinging nettle. Pronounced with hard ‘g’.
Stick prep. Versus. For example, a playground game might be convened with ‘It’s boys stick girls’.
Tig n. The children’s game known elsewhere as ‘tag’.
Wag it vi. To play truant.
Wumpty n. West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, or WMPTE – i.e. the Birmingham buzz operator.