Definition and Examples of Back Slang

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Back Slang
Examples of back slang used by London costermongers in the 19th century. duncan1890/Getty Images


Back slang is a form of slang in which words are spoken and/or spelled backward.

According to lexicographer Eric Partridge, back slang was popular with the costermongers (street-vendors) in Victorian London. "The hallmark of their speech," Partridge said, "is the frequency with which they turn words (normal or slangy) into back-slang . . .. The general rule is to spell a word backwards, and then, ideally, to employ the pronunciation approaching the closest to that often impossible arrangement of letters" (Slang Today and Yesterday, 1960).

The costermongers themselves referred to back slang as kacab genals.

Like rhyming slang, back slang "started out as subterfuge," says MIchael Adams, "but soon became language games you could play for fun" (Slang: The People's Poetry, 2009).

Examples and Observations

"If you really want to speak freely around those who shouldn't know your secrets, learn how to form back slang or center slang. When you are next in your local, order a top o' reeb instead of 'pot of beer,' but hope that the bartender understands the slang, or you may be eighty-sixed for the whole kew 'week.' Don't blame the bartender, though, who may not be the right nosper 'person' for the bloomin' emag 'bloomin' game.'"
(Michael Adams, Slang: The People's Poetry. Oxford University Press, 2009)

Arbitrary Spelling Conventions

"Back slang is a language constructed on lines—I venture to hint illogical lines—of its own. The initial idea is that all words are to be pronounced backwards; for instance, instead of saying 'no' you say 'on,' for 'bad man' you say 'dab nam.' But you have not proceeded far before you find that the initial idea breaks down.

'Penny,' reversed, would be 'ynnep,' the back slangster says 'yennup.' 'Evig em a yennup,' is his version of 'Give me a penny.' . . . It would be impossible for an English tongue to pronounce many of our words backwards. How would you pronounce 'night' or 'drink' backwards, leaving the spelling as it is?

not to speak of more difficult examples. The result is that the 'back slangster' adopts not only an arbitrary spelling, but also an arbitrary pronunciation of his own."

("Slang." All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens, November 25, 1893)

The Language of Tradesmen and Children
"Back-slang proper, sometimes employed by barrow-boys and hawkers, and indigenous to certain trades such as the greengrocer's and the butcher's, where it is spoken to ensure that the customer shall not understand what is being said ('Evig reh emos delo garcs dene'--Give her some old scrag end) consists simply of saying each word backwards, and when this is impossible saying the name of the letter instead of its sound, usually the first or the last letter, thus: 'Uoy nac ees reh screckin ginwosh' (You can see her knickers showing). An Enfield master reports that he found 'at least half a dozen boys who could talk it quickly.'"
(Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford University Press, 1959)

Secret Languages

"Secret languages . . . have an obvious appeal for those who have something to hide. One language used by African slaves, called TUT, was based on phonetics, and used to help teach children to read.

Victorian market traders, meanwhile, are thought to have dreamed up 'back slang'—in which a word is spoken backwards, giving us 'yob' for 'boy'--in order to single out customers on whom to palm off shoddy goods."

(Laura Barnett, "Why We All Need Our Own Secret Slang." The Guardian [UK], June 9, 2009)

A 19th-Century Report on Back Slang

"This back language, back slang, or 'kacab genals,' as it is called by the costermongers themselves, is supposed to be regarded by the rising generation of street-sellers as a distinct and regular mode of intercommunication. People who hear this slang for the first time never refer words, by inverting them, to their originals; and the yanneps, esclops, and nammows, are looked upon as secret terms. Those who practice the slang soon obtain a considerable stock vocabulary, so that they converse rather from the memory than the understanding.

Amongst the senior costermongers, and those who pride themselves on their proficiency in back slang, a conversation is often sustained for a whole evening—that is, the chief words are in the back slang—especially if any flats are present whom they wish to astonish or confuse. . .

"The back slang has been in vogue for many years. It is . . . very easily acquired, and is principally used by the costermongers and others who practice it . . . for communicating the secrets of their street tradings, the cost of and profit on goods, and for keeping their natural enemies, the police, in the dark."
(The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, rev. ed., 1874)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Back Slang." ThoughtCo, Mar. 17, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, March 17). Definition and Examples of Back Slang. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Back Slang." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).