PreWW2, The 30s, Butcher’s Backslang

In the ’30s, youngsters thought they were being terribly secretive , and of course, clever, by talking a simple ‘back slang’. I haven’t heard it for years, but perhaps I now move in the wrong circles. It was simple enough, you took the last letter or syllable of a word, made it the first, added ay and that was it. A common usage was ‘scram’ and because ‘m’ in front was difficult it became ‘amscray’.
However, that was for children, in the real world, the world of my great grand parents, some of whom were poultry men, they spoke ‘Butchers Back Slang’, where whole words were reversed, ‘old’ became ‘d-lo’ and so on. A moments thought will reveal the problems this system had, ‘th reversed is tricky and ‘h’ became ‘ch’, so it really became a language with short cuts. My mother learned it as a child. I doubt it has stood the test of time, I never hear it at the meat counter in Tescos.
My mother’s refusal to take second best, and my dalliance combined to ignite an inflamed interchange in Butcher’s Slang. I was very young, and to me shopping was an opportunity to view the world in general at a gentle pace, purchasing was a necessary by product. On one occasion I produced, in lieu of a bag of groceries, a huge, plaster-of-Paris Alsatian dog, bought after long deliberation and a hard sell by the barker, from the tail-gate of a lorry.
On another day it was merely going, buying and returning – no diversions. However, instead of the regular butcher, who knew me, and more to the point, my mother Ellen, a young counter-hand served me, and because I was a mere boy he used his freshly acquired business acumen to pass off meat he wanted rid of instead of what he had been asked for. When I arrived home Ellen met me in the hall, the parcel was unwrapped, words passed, the apron came off with a flourish, the hat went on with a long hat-pin jabbed viciously into the bun. Arms were hastily thrust into an overcoat and with the slam of the front door still ringing in our ears, Ellen took off at the run, the parcel in one hand, me trailing like a kite on a string from the other.
By this time the shop was full, but Ellen, normally courteous, was roused out of her calm by righteous indignation. I tried unsuccessfully to remain in the street, but I had to stand in the footlights, scraping a tentative foot in the sawdust, while Ellen in her accentless English told the staff what she thought of their conduct. I indicated the miscreant, and it was at this point that the criminal made a fatal error, he referred to Ellen as a ‘D-lo woc’, (Old Cow) and a few other unprepossessing names in the same language. What the young aspirant to the Butcher’s Guild did not know was that Ellen had spent her youth in Deal, Kent, as the grand-daughter of a butcher and poultry man, with a shop which was festooned at celebration time with fowl of every description and of the very best quality, while he stood in the doorway of the shop, straw boater on his head, blue and white apron stretched across his ample person and a steel hanging from his waist. In this environment, Ellen had learned ‘Butcher’s back-slang’. T he rest is history, and predictable.


  1. My father was a butcher boy in Deal before the war. He told me all about back slang, but the only one I can remember is leg of lamb, which became gel o b-male. He used to ride his delivery bike to Walmer and St Margaret at Cliffe, delivering huge joints of beef to the big houses there. He often bumped into Norman Wisdom, who rode a delivery bike for Lipton’s the Grocers. Dad said Norman was very funny even as a lad, and used to do daft things while riding his bicycle.

  2. Oh, dear. This post is so old, despair of answer. But here goes… My mother, who came from a family of tradesmen which included butchers, loved to show her expertise in butchers’ back slang. The only expression I remember was ‘look at the old cow’. How would you say this? Got the de-lo woc bit , but can’t think of f the rest. Can you help?
    So pleased to have found this page!

  3. When I was a small boy my father and uncle (who were both London Butchers before the war) when they did not want me to know what they were talking about spoke in backslang – I never mastered it and was a butcher for 40 years as well.

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