Ebonics, Mat and Argot

by Translation Guy on December 1, 2010
7 comments

A few months ago, I blogged about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s search for Ebonic interpreters to translate wiretapped conversations among drug dealers. Like many readers, I’ve been curious about any relationship between Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and modern criminal argot. An argot is a secret language used by various groups—including, but not limited to, thieves and other criminals—to prevent outsiders from understanding conversations.

There’s just one little problem in researching argots. As a secret language, no self-respecting argot speaker is going to be making small talk with the uninitiated. Either that, or it’s not a secret language anymore. So after in-depth researching on Google for many minutes, I’ve come up dry.

At Argot.com, I found stuff like “Alice B. Toklas” for a pot brownie and other such phrases. Up-to-the-minute drug dealing argot has got to be better than that. Ethnicity is going to play a big role, too, in the formation of argots in illicit communities, so speaking the local language or learning the dialect is the first step towards decoding the argots that derive from those languages.

The only English-derived criminal argot I’ve found has been the thieves’ cant of Elizabethan England, conveniently published in a dictionary in 1699. For those interested in further study of thieves’ cant, please be careful to note that an academy in this dialect refers to a bawdy-house, not a university or educational institute for Gentlemen.

And apparently this particular argot is still in use, or at least has been revived at Buckley Hall Prison in the UK by convicts who “use ye olde Elizabethan slang to smuggle drugs past guards into prison.”

It’s been updated, of course, to reflect modern improvements, but still bears the mark of the old dialect, thought to originate from medieval gypsies. Since those old timers didn’t know their crack from junk, convicts have found it necessary to update their vocabulary to meet modern prison smuggling demands. Cawbe for crack cocaine, Onick for heroin, and Inick for a cell phone.

But hidden meanings are a two-way street between rogues and shades (guards) in British prisons, or at least a convenient kind of translation fail. The Telegraph reported a few days ago that Russian convicts at Lincoln Prison were being told that an exercise area was an “execution yard.” That kind of translation fail will take the spring right out of your step.

Since prisons were a big growth sector for the Soviets, it figures that Russian argot, also known as “mat,” would be important. Mat, Russia’s dirty-mouthed national argot is leaving the streets for the salon these days.

“Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, mat was largely a language of the street. But in the nineteen-eighties, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, it began to move aboveground, infiltrating the mass media, literature, movies, and eventually the Internet, finding its way onto videocassettes, into pop songs, and even opera. Russia today is experiencing the age of the liberation of mat, and its lilt is often heard in public spaces, including the Duma itself,” wrote Victor Evrofeyev in the New Yorker back in 2003.

Fascinating to a foul-mouthed New Yorker like me that such a proscribed, nasty-worded language could rise to the heights of society after long decades of oppression. But I remain clueless about what mat means to Russian speakers, and what argots are spoken in English by the criminal class. I’d love to hear from those more knowledgeable.

7 Comments

  1. Foul mouthed? Haven’t you been known to edit ‘on the fence’ words from our comment??! No foul mouth Ken. Unless you’re the closet type?

    • Ken says:

      Heidi, I swear, I have never edited out any of my favorite four-letter words from comments. Pretty much all I will pull is hate speech and Viagra ads. As far as me coming out of the closet profanity-wise, let’s just leave that as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

  2. When I first arrived in Russia in 2000, with a measly Russian minor under my belt, I had a passing reading knowledge of Russian. I could say and understand almost nothing of the colloquial language, but I could order a beer—enough to get by. Until, that is, I joined some Russian friends for a vodka evening in Moscow, and heard the same unfamiliar words, repeated over and over again, and in ever more dazzling combinations. When my friends noticed the dazed look in my eyes, two things were clear to them: 1) my Russian education had been desultory; 2) they’d have to take action if I wanted to understand anything over the course of the year. They immediately grabbed pen and paper, and spent the rest of the evening drinking and compiling a Beginner’s Guide to Russian Mat, initiating me into a twilight zone of Russian humor and language whose existence I hadn’t even suspected. This single sheet of paper, filled on both sides, proved to be absolutely indispensable to me throughout that first year. This post brings back those memories Ken.

  3. Allan Nguyen says:

    I love the thought of hardcore criminals saying something like “Red rag to a bull and codswallop this here bloke!”

    • Ken says:

      Verily!

  4. Wilber says:

    In Russian MAT is dirty language – quite the opposite of secret or thieves’ cant. Casual, crude, angry, abusive (or indeed humorous) MAT is used with the intent to push buttons, not to conceal. It does appear to have invaded formerly more refined venues. Much like the increasing spread and tolerance of dirty language in America and England, for example.

    Russian secret language may be referred to as ARGO (from the French), and in the case of specifically criminal argot, BLAT (note the rhyme with MAT). BLAT and its derivatives also refer generally to shady dealings, “pull,” and the like.

    In my own translation work, mostly scholarly material, I often encounter specimens of BLAT (always self-consciously highlighted by being enclosed in quote marks), but never MAT.

    Na zdorovye, TransGuy. Keep on keepin’ on.

    • Ken says:

      Ever since I read that New Yorker article, years ago, Wilber, I was under the impression that mat was so nasty that it was covert. But sounds like to a Russian speaker it’s no more dramatic than the phrases New Yorker use to greet one another in traffic. Does blat influence mat? or is it the other way around?

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