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Heists and mayhem: the language of crime

There has been a lot on British minds recently, with horsemeat and obesity coming high on the list of preoccupations. But amid the furore over such unpalatable subjects, it was a different headline altogether that caught my eye. ‘Diamond heist at Brussels airport nets gang up to £30m in gems’, was the Guardian’s version, while the Daily Telegraph followed up with ‘Mole mastermind sought for perfect Brussels diamond heist’. For the Daily Mail, it was simply ‘The Belgian Job’.

The facts of the story were certainly remarkable, involving eight men who managed to cut a hole in a security fence and burst through it in fake police cars. Although heavily armed with military machine-guns, they managed to seize the diamonds without firing a shot. The ‘perfect’ crime indeed. What stood out for me, though, wasn’t the audacity of the snatch, but the words chosen by those who covered it, and a style that was a cross between an Ealing Comedy and a le Carré novel.

The language of crime

Heist itself has a long heritage. It is a variation on ‘hoist’, originally used for shoplifting, and seems to have been first used in print by Carl Panzram, an American serial killer who recalled in 1928 how, while carrying out a mugging (a term dating right back to the early 1800s), ‘I was figuring when to pull out my hog-leg [a large pistol] and heist ’em up.’ During the Prohibition, to heist meant to ‘hijack a liquor shipment’ and took on an element of glamour; today, that sense of filmic derring-do remains. In the telling of the Brussels robbery, ‘heist’ joined ‘gems’ and ‘mastermind’ to convey a distinct, if sneaky, admiration– all that was missing, it seemed to me, was the word ‘caper’.

The language of crime was in fact the first category of slang to be collected, in the printer Robert Copland’s wonderfully-titled Hye Way to the Spyttel-house (ca. 1535; a ‘spittle house’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a place . . . chiefly occupied by persons of a low class or afflicted with foul diseases’). This slang was properly known as ‘cant’, a word based on the Latin cantare, to sing, because of the sing-song tones of the criminal beggars who used it. Dictionaries such as these included terms for villains that could have come straight out of a Marvel comic, such as ‘the Ruffler’, who pretended to be a war veteran and then robbed those who took pity on him, and the ‘Counterfeit Crank’. The ‘bawdy basket’, meanwhile, was a female thief posing as a seller of pins and needles.

Criminal ‘law’

If today’s newspapers look to the word ‘job’ for an act of crime, in the 16th and 17th centuries they would have been talking about (ironically) the ‘law’. There was ‘barnard’s law’, a form of card-sharping in which a team of four con-men fleece a victim (derived from barnard, a member of a swindling gang who plays the part of an innocent bystander keen to help the victim while actually assisting the robbery), the ‘figging law’ (picking pockets), the ‘sacking law’ (prostitution), and ‘vincent’s law’ (cheating at cards, from the Latin vincens, ‘victorious’).

On to the 19th century, and ‘law’ had become ‘lay’; among the crimes covered were such capers as the ‘gooseberry lay’, the stealing by tramps of linen drying in the open air (such linen was known as gooseberries). There was even the ‘hoist-lay’, which involved the robbing of a man by holding him upside down and shaking the money out of his pockets.

The double life of slang

Slang was of course the perfect vehicle for the language of crime, leading as it does a linguistic kind of double life – it is a code for the initiated, and deliberately baffling for those on the outside: rhyming slang began in just that way. But there are many words in standard English which have their foundations in crime, albeit ones that are now (again, appropriately) in the shadows. ‘Mayhem’ comes from the earlier word ‘maim’; in the middle of the fifteenth century, to ‘commit mayhem’ was to maliciously injure another person. The crime had a long run in the statute books, surviving well into the 19th century until its scope broadened to include a sense of chaotic violence.

Going back much further, Viking law distinguished between morð, which meant ‘secret slaughter’, and vig, or ‘slaying’. The former crime involved concealment, such as killing a person while they were asleep: a heinous offence, punishable by death. Vig, as long as it was acknowledged, was less contentious, although families sinned against were perfectly entitled to take their revenge. It is morð that became our modern term ‘murder’. ‘Pain’, meanwhile, originally meant ‘punishment’, especially for a crime – it came from the Greek poine, ‘quit-money for spilled blood’. The original sense is retained in the phrase ‘on pain of death’.

The lexicon of crime is, unsurprisingly, a multi-layered one. It includes words used against and among criminals for their covert misdeeds, but also some that are now so out in the open that we’ve forgotten their beginnings. Sometimes a term can be both – take ‘connive’, which comes from a Latin verb for ‘wink’ and the idea of shutting an eye to a wrongdoing and thus being secretly privy to it. Time has moved on, but the headlines above stories of terrible crimes are as bleak now as they must have been centuries ago. At least, they usually are: judging by the ones describing a certain heist in Belgium, a few winks might have been involved there too.