England riots: What's the meaning of the words behind the chaos?

Confrontation between police and rioters in Hackney

From shot 29-year-old Mark Duggan referring to the police as "feds" to the nuanced use of the word "community", the language of the riots and the response can tell us something.

It may have been England that was shaken by violence, looting and disorder.

But many of the terms used by its perpetrators came from a very different place altogether - and, due to coverage of the rioting, they have found a wider audience than ever before.

"If you see a fed... SHOOT!" read one message circulated on BlackBerry Messenger, imploring readers to riot.

Another, widely reported in the aftermath of the chaos, urged everyone to "up and roll to Tottenham [expletive] the 5-0". There were myriad references as well to the "po po".

Mark Duggan, whose fatal shooting by police sparked the violence, himself sent a text message shortly before his death which read: "The feds are following me."

Slang for the police

  • Slang terms for the police, often hostile and originated by criminals, go back a long time
  • "Pig" was first used to mean police officer in 1811, the OED says
  • "Peeler" was in use to refer to Irish constables by 1817 and was widely used for Robert Peel's prototype force in 1829
  • The "fuzz" is first recorded in the US in 1929

All these terms used to express antipathy towards the police share a common feature - all are derived from the inner cities of the US, not of the UK.

To outsiders, it appeared incongruous that these terms were commonly used by youngsters who were straight out of comprehensive, not Compton.

But when politicians and pundits used such terms to argue that the pernicious influence of hip hop and rap was responsible for fuelling the riots, they themselves ended up using vernacular gleaned from their box sets of The Wire.

When Michael Gove, the education secretary, discussed the possible causes of the disorder, he attacked the instant gratification of "gangsta" culture. Reporters transcribed the word as it might appear on the lyric sheet of a Dr Dre CD, instead of "gangster", as once would have been expected when deployed by an Aberdonian Tory MP who represents a constituency in Surrey.

However, Jennifer Blake, a youth worker who runs the Safe and Sound anti-gang project in Peckham, south London, says such commentators miss the point.

Scene from the first series of The Wire The Wire included terms "po-po" and "5-0"

"When kids talk about the feds, it's obvious that they're not talking about the FBI," she says. "They know that's not how things work over here. It's like a code - politicians and the media don't understand."

She highlights home-grown phrases like "bully van", meaning police van, and "shank", meaning knife, as evidence that UK street culture is not just passively replicating the language of the US inner cities.

Indeed, Jonathon Green, author of the Chambers Slang Dictionary, points out that many of the messages which circulated during the riots included non-US phrases.

These included exhortations to defend one's "yard" - used in its Jamaican-derived sense, meaning home - or one's "end", a home-grown term referring to an area of a city.

Exclusive blend

All, he says, are examples of Multicultural London English (MLE), a dialect identified among young people in the capital which blends the phonetics and vocabulary of such diverse influences as West Indian, south Asian and traditional cockney.

He says the use of "feds" to mean the UK constabulary dates back no further than 1997, and the English deployment of "po po" - which originated in Los Angeles during the 1980s - is even more recent. Such Americanisms, Green says, have to be understood in this context, at least within London where the riots began.

The Sopranos The Sopranos series regularly used the term "feds"

"It's an ironical use," he says. "Obviously there's been an increased Americanisation of our language since the war, but MLE doesn't just come from one source. It just so happens that rap music has lots of terms for the police."

Of course, the language of certain rappers has been adopted far more widely than just among the inner city youths who form their target audience.

Professor Gus John of the Institute of Education, University of London, has long worked with young people associated with gangs and has studied changes in language within England's multi-ethnic communities. He argues that such terminology has the function of setting its users apart from the mainstream.

"It has its own resonance. It's also exclusive, it becomes an internal language to people who share particular lifestyles. That's part of its potency.

"The fact that it is internal, the fact it is not commonly used by everybody, helps to define the group."

Woman cleaning the streets of Battersea Opponents of the rioters have their own terminology

Certainly, those who know little of hip hop culture, and would themselves reject violence and rioting, might have their own nicknames for the police, such as Old Bill or Peelers.

And among those attempting to speak for the majority appalled by the disorder, one word was regularly repeated.

Tottenham's MP David Lammy spoke of "a mood of anxiety in the local community". Sikhs who gathered in west London to guard against looters said they were "here to defend our temple and our community". Richard Mannington Bowes, who died trying to prevent looting, was quickly hailed as a "hero of the community".

The "community", it appeared, was everything and everyone that did not include the rioters.

Indeed, the focus on "gangsta" terminology tells us just as much about the media as it does about the perpetrators of disorder, suggests lexicographer Susie Dent.

"I think journalists have adopted it because it distils the mood and the type of person perceived to be behind the past few days, and also because there's been a distinct uncertainty, almost nervousness, about what to call the perpetrators," she says.

"Are they rioters, which implies a political objection, looters, which doesn't, or vandals, etc? It's interesting too that a lot of the people cleaning up embraced the Sun's 'scum' so readily, a reflexive response of anger."

Whether it comes from the criminals themselves or the law-abiding majority, the words used to describe England's riots tells us much about the society that produced them.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that far more than language divides the two sides.


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England riots


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  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    #201 falcoman
    Your link says at the bottom: "Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence."

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    You's people don' understan' the meaning of deprivation-get me?
    Deprivation is like when your i-pod,like, is broken and you Mum (or Dad if you's got one) can't get 'old of nuvver one, cheap-like from geezer down street coz 'e got arrested
    Yeah,an' it even worse when you's can't afford,like,proper Bourbon Creams,like, an' you's 'ave to 'ave dem own-brand ones-dat's proper deprivation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    @ 217. The only "nutters" in America are the liberals like yourself who continue to support Obama after he has embarrassed our nation in every way possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    You are no doubt a very nice person, think-further, but "the community" is not to blame for so-and-so's lack of a decent family and subsequent descent into the criminal life. Without "the community" providing for us all, there would be vastly fewer resources, including those that these punks saw fit to destroy. They don't value it because they spent nothing to get it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    What we are ignoring is that 'the community's' rejection of those it perceives as 'not-us' has obliged 'them' to form their own surrogate families, values & language to compensate for their sense of being cast-out by virtue of race, intellect, mentality, attitude or location.

    The Romans also excluded such peoples. The Barbarians later used the Romans' tech against them - from within the gates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    It's OK. I live in America and have started using some of the British lingo calling the tea party a bunch of nutters. I think that was quite accurate. We'll just trade a few words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    "Feds" is just an abbreviation for federal authorities, such as the FBI. I feel exasperated dealing with the overall stupidity of this article. There are numerous errors and it's based on American television and prison-yard talk. The assumption is that America is providing the majority of Britain's negative influences. Are Britons really that susceptible?

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I just re-read this article and took note of the photos taken from The Wire and The Sopranos. May I remind you that these are television shows, meaning that they are fictional? If someone has chosen to base their vocabulary, behavior, actions, etc. on these shows, or worse didn't even realize that they were basing themselves on these shows... Well, doesn't that speak more of the individual?

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    "MOTIVATE" is just one more word of the situation. Not a word from the USA or the UK, but a codeword by the spooks of all countries.

    It was used every time BEFORE the riots in France.
    It was used BEFORE the riots in England - before the first shot.

    The riots are provoked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    The looters are scum, criminals, etc. & deserve harshly punished.
    But they are also a symptom of a system that is has broken down.
    They have no sense of society's norms because it has failed to make a place for them, neither gov't nor business. They have no jobs because there are no jobs to be had. If they were participating in society normally(HAD JOBS), they'd not feel the need for hooliganism

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    LOL "Americanism?" Most of the youth today were not born during the Gangsta Rap era. These notorious artists did rap about the horrible conditions of their neighborhoods and may have even espoused "taking" what they needed. However, riots last week could have easily been influenced by the Berlin Conference of 1884 or the British propensity to "mandate," "colonize," and "incorporate."

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    I think Jonathan Green's wrong when he talks about "feds" only dating from 1997. I've been using it myself since at least 1975, I think it was from one of the American cop series such as Kojak or Starsky and Hutch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    While blaming US for Gangsta Rap influence,UK en masse adopted US phenomena of Voting for Likes & Dislikes rather than "POLICY". Canada also adopted abandonment of Policy for Likes.
    It all started with EMBEDDING Media with Military in Iraq invasion to CONTROL News.Reporters would not criticise Soldiers who 'Protected' them. Since evolved into Media Influencing Elections,enters HACKING & Murdoch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Even now, the System keeps feeding off it's Marginalised like fleas off of dogs. Cameron will spend on everything Except Correcting Social Injustices.
    It is OBVIOUS that Law-Abiding Reps from those Neighbourhoods are best persons for Finding SOLUTIONS, God forbid that Govt should contemplate HIRING from among it's Marginalised for their Experience and Law-Abiding nature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    As for the "pernicious effect of American culture," which American culture? Surely you can't be saying there's only one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Blaming the US for these riots is a flawed theory. Riots only occur if there is social injustice or if people have lost hope for a better future. "A riot is language of the unheard" (M.L. King). These riots, and the ones in Greece, are due to people not having jobs to earn a decent livelihood. They are a result of the government ignoring domestic spending to create jobs to put people to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Politicians and beaurocrats cannot even get the terminology correct, that is how much Attention they've paid to this segment of 'Their' population.
    Being 'Designated' Loosers doesn't inspire anything other than Revolt, and that is what UK had in form of Riots.
    One word encompassing Govt, beaurocracy and Police who collectively Enforce that designation is: 'Babylon', a system designed to Oppress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    It's amazing a lot of people are quick to blame my country, yet not so willing to pay attention to what the young people are saying. I also noticed comparisons between these riots and the LA riots. As one who was born down there and have a lot of family down there, one aspect of the LA Riots rarely gets covered: There were business owners burning their own businesses for insurance. True fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Main gist of this conversation is "Fragmented" Them Vs Us: non-preferred Rioters, preferred Society,and Ethnic Communities.
    REALITY is, preferred Society do not identify with Ethnic 'Communities' any more than they do with Rioters.
    DYSFUNCTIONALLY, Rioters are only 'Cosmopolitan' group diversely fighting Poverty-stricken Social Bias.Misguided,but ALL Inclusive nevertheless. Political Problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    The pernicious effect of American culture and its use as a role-model for the way we live is to be found everywhere in modern society.


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