Brit Language: Victorian Costermonger’s Spoke Back Slang

A Victorian costermonger (also known as coster) was a street hawker of fruit, vegetables, and other goods like fish. They spoke in a loud singsong voice or chant to catch their customer’s attention and spent most of their lives on the street. The often-corrupt, sometimes obscene tough breed of market trader spoke a variety of the cockney dialect called back slang, a language unique to the tightly knit, extremely loyal group called costermongers. They were flashy dressers with an aura of success, when they were prospering.  Their motto, “Spend it while you’ve got, tomorrow you may die.”

Back slang or backwards speaking probably developed in the early 1800’s and consisted of a very small vocabulary of “mainly verbs, nouns, cardinal numbers, and the occasional adjective”. John Hotten published the first back slang dictionary — A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words. (source)

Frank is a coster lad. Rescued from the workhouse at age 11 by Tip, a seasoned and successful costermonger, he is running his own business by age 13. Up at 3:30 AM, he rents the ‘barrow’ and tools he needs for the day hoping that the “talley bloke” won’t cheat him. He has to be at Billingsgate, the wholesale fish market, by 4:00 AM to buy his stock for the day. He pushes a barrow or carries a heavy tray walking all over town covering up to ten miles a day.

“…only a minority had fixed stalls or standings. The rest cried out their wares as they walked the streets with barrows, donkey carts, or shallows (trays carried on the head). In the 1840s they accounted for ten percent of the cheaper produce sold in Covent Garden’s wholesale market, and a good third of Billingsgate fish.” (source)

Frank uses camouflage, persuasion, and trickery to sell his stock, though he would never cheat or shortchange a fellow costermonger. He spends all his money on flashy clothes, drink, and gambling. He lives in a cheap and squalid lodging house, moving frequently, but considers himself an aristocrat being skilled in the fish trade with a customary swagger that belies his true condition-living by his wits in a day-to-day struggle.

He speaks back slang, a personal language unique to the fierce market traders called costermongers. The language was,“…said to have originated as a secret way of communicating by coster mongers when carrying out illegal street trade in the mid-nineteenth century and has evolved into a complex and often very confusing language.”(source)

Jennifer Worth observes, “Costers in those days spoke to each other almost entirely in back slang, incomprehensible to an outsider.” 

Excerpts from her book:

“The toobs what wears out with all that ‘ollering.”  (It’s the pipes (vocal cords) that wear out with all the yelling.)

“Sey, I done a doogheno flash, today. But kool ‘im. Who’s he?”  (Say, I done a good deal today. Look at him. Who’s he?)

“My wen dahl, giv ‘im some reeb an’ rater.”  (My new lad, give him some beer and water.)

“Jack, ‘e ‘ad a regular tosseno tol. ‘Ad a showful. Bigger loof ‘im.”  (Jack had bad luck. Had bad money. More fool him.)

“He musta bin flash karnurd at ve time.” Oh no, just a dabeno.”  (He must have been half drunk at the time. Oh no, just a bad debt.)

The latter part of Frank’s story is featured in the acclaimed BBC series Call of the Midwife. This is a terrific book! Literary Review said, “Worth is indeed a natural storyteller…a powerful evocation of a long-gone world.”

So, I’m off to get a liner (dinner). I’ll think I’ll have Kate and Sidney (steak and Kidney), with doorsteps (lumps of bread), a pint o’reeb (beer), and a little spotted dick (currant pudding). Sounds good to me.


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  1. avatarRob says

    Hello, I’m writing a book myself and I was wondering if you know if 4:00 o’clock is the rule or if there were costermongers who got into billingsgate at 7.
    Which is something I read somewhere but I cant recall where.
    I’d be much obliged to get a reply from you.