To understand young people’s intentions, authorities have to get to grips with the slang they use to communicate. But the relationship between the street slang used by many young people every day and the secret codes deployed by gang members while planning and boasting about crimes is not always straightforward, and lends itself to misunderstandings.
That’s where I come in. I have collected slang for as long as I can remember, and since the early 1990s I have taught about it too, and published dictionaries and articles to record and analyse it. Since 2009, I have been assisting law enforcement agencies and defence lawyers to make sense of evidence in criminal trials that hinge on slang terms most people are unable to decipher. Decoding and translating this language can help both young victims of violence and the young people who are wrongly accused of perpetrating it.
Violence and vernacular
Most academics and teachers in the UK pay slang little attention: it is, after all, the language of outsiders, of rebellion, of bad behaviour and mockery. But I find colourful, unorthodox language like slang inherently interesting: it creatively exploits English in a way that both renews the language and gives a voice to marginal, misunderstood communities.
This includes ways of speaking that mix local and imported words and pronunciations, that have developed in London as well as other European cities. One of these vernaculars – called “multicultural London English” or Urban British English – has now spread far beyond the capital and can be heard even in rural streets and playgrounds.
Young criminals, of course, share the same accents, intonations, day-to-day vocabulary and grammatical novelties as all the other users of Urban British English. So I get involved when the meanings of slang terms are unclear, or when their interpretation is disputed by defence and prosecution in court. The same slang term may have more than one meaning: “plug”, for instance, may mean stab or shoot, or may refer to a drug contact or drug supply; “toys” can refer to drugs, drug paraphernalia, cars or guns.