Two Sneaky Stories by an Ag Slang Speaker

This post is about ag slang, a secret language which dates back to the Between the Wars years, that is, the 1920s – 1930s, when it became a popular secret language between school children. My mother who was the third of four sisters had learnt it at school, and she taught it to me and my brothers; and I, in my turn, taught it to my two children. My aunts also taught it to their children (I rang round my cousins to check before I started this post.) ‘I’m so sorry to bother you on a Saturday,’ I said, ‘but dago yagou spageak agag slagang?’  (Do you speak ag slang?) There was a startled pause and then ‘Yages – wagell, agI uagused tago!’ (Yes – well, I used to.)

Greenwich Maritime Museum

(I also googled ag slang and discovered that there’s an unpleasant 21st century meaning of the phrase where ‘ag’ is short for aggressive and its use can be insulting. This is not what I’m talking about.)

There are a number of misleading entries about ag slang on the web. One has it that it is spoken only in Aberdeen –  not true. My mother’s family came from south London; they were ordinary lower middle class and all four daughters went to local Council schools.

Another entry talks about ‘eggy peggy’ which is mentioned in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love’. Eggy peggy is a variation where ‘eg’ is used instead of ‘ag’. The entry spoke of it as being exclusively used by the Mitfords – and posh – again not true.

So, what exactly is it? All you need to know in order to speak it are two things: 1st what a syllable is, and 2nd, what a vowel sound is, that is a,e,i,o, and u – and sometimes y. You – and this is important – don’t need to know how to spell. In fact, knowing how to spell is a disadvantage.

It is much easier to learn when you are young: 6-9 years old is about right. It is almost impossible to teach an adult – I tried to teach my husband but he just became impatient and refused have anything to do with it.

Apparently, my maternal grand-father also got very cross when his daughters spoke it amongst themselves.

The dictionary defines a syllable as ‘a unit of sound into which a word can be divided.’ It goes on to give examples: ‘there are two syllables in ‘unit’, three in ‘divided’ and one in ‘can’. Remember, spelling is irrelevant. The name ‘Anne’ has only one syllable. In ag slang it’s pronounced Agann. Don’t be side-tracked by the spelling.

I taught my children aged 7 and 8 during a 30 minute car journey to visit their Granny. And we practiced it on the way home, later.  By the time we got home they were fluent – as I had been when my mother taught me, again on a car journey, at a similar age.

My three brothers all speak it, and occasionally it comes in really useful:

A view of Greenwich from the poop deck of the Cutty Sark

Some years ago my second brother and I went by train to visit the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We had a very pleasant day, but when we went to get the train home, we found that Greenwich station was completely closed and no trains were running. We were advised to take a bus.

There was a huge crowd around the bus stop. It would plainly take ages for us even to get on to a bus. What to do?

Then I had an idea – and it was one which I didn’t want the crowd around the bus stop to hear. So I said, in ag slang: ‘The previous bus stop isn’t far – we could walk there and get on the bus before it gets here.

My brother nodded, and we discreetly edged our way out of the crowd and walked back towards the Museum, trying to look inconspicuous. In a few minutes we came to the previous bus stop – where there were only a couple of people waiting. A few moments later our bus came, we got on, went upstairs and sat at the front to watch the crowd still outside the station trying to get onto our bus. My stratagem had succeeded! And it was all thanks to our knowing ag slang.

On another occasion, I was in Italy with my eldest brother having a meal in Trieste. A couple of Americans were sitting opposite us. My brother and I were speaking ag slang – it was a private conversation – and we suddenly realized that the Americans were discussing us: where we came from and what language we could possibly be talking. In the end, to our great amusement, they decided that we were speaking Scottish Gaelic!

But you have to be careful; I have, from time to time, caught an amused look on the face of a total stranger and found myself giving them a sheepish grin.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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18 thoughts on “Two Sneaky Stories by an Ag Slang Speaker”

  1. Oh, that’s fascinating, Elizabeth. I remember my mother talking about something similar. Her grandmother had been dresser in Sir John Martin Harvey’s company (I think she said he had a sister, Jean, who acted) and there was a sort of ag-slang used by the backstage theatre folk, so that the stage door johnnies and their like shouldn’t understand. This would have been in the 1890s or so, I imagine.

    My mother also told me about street market back stand. She once heard a butcher call out to the man weighing the meat: “Dole leg, emak a tib.” The customer replied in the same kind and walked off, much to his confusion. What he had actually meant was, “Old girl, make a bit.”
    “Emak a tib,” became one of our private jokes, though we never had occasion to use it. Ag slang would have been much more useful.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sophy. It’s interesting how a variety of secret languages came into vogue in the late 19th to mid 20th century. I’ve heard of several others. I know a few people not related to me who also know it – they had learnt it at school.

      It’ll be interesting to see how many people leave comments about it and how they came to learn it.

  2. Oh! I used to speak this at school with a friend! It is possible I’d read it in a book and we decided to try it out (we *often* acted out scenes from books) and, as you say, it became very useful in a crowded classroom, changing room or playground.

    1. How fascinating, Jan. It seems to have been ‘in the ether’ as it were for, probably, a couple of generations. It’s interesting how it’s now more or less disappeared – because, as you say, it’s actually really useful. At least I know that I can greet you in ag slang when we next meet!

  3. Loved the stories and the slang is really interesting – reminds me of reading my aunt’s books from the 1930s. But the thing that grabbed me was your mention of ‘eggy peggy’. I remember a playground game (Norfolk village, mid 1970s – so definitely not upper class) where you and an opponent stood on one leg in the playground, palms vertical and held against each other’s. The first person would ask, ‘Eggy Peggy broke a leggy, of what kind?’ The second would give a category (trees, animals, colours) and you’d take it in turn to name something, while simultaneously hopping and pushing against each other. The person who stayed on their feet and could keep naming something in the category was the winner.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Kate – and welcome to my blog. Your ‘eggy peggy’ sounds quite a complicated game – very, very good for one’s co-ordination and mental agility, if nothing else! Your description of the game sounds vaguely familiar though not under that name. I only know about ‘eggy peggy’ from reading Nancy Mitford and then I thought ‘Oh, but that’s ag slang!’

  4. We spoke ab slang as children, rather than ag. Same thing only with b. I was amused to find it used in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, so it seems to be a universal thing as that was American.

    It can be immensely useful if you are fluent.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. From the answers to my blog so far, it seems to have been widely used – and is probably still going strong, certainly among older people. But do the current young use it, I wonder?

  5. Grageat blagog! Agi fagind agagslagang vagery hagelpfagul whagen agi nageed tago sagay sagomethaging bagut dagon’t wagant pageopagle nagearbagy tago agundagerstagand.

  6. Well, this article and comments have made me smile. In my part of Lancashire we used ‘ga’ as the additional syllable. And we just knew it was the most secret language in the world! Lovely to see how inventive everyone was. And, as a linguist, interested in the regional variations.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Beth, which made me smile, too. I’m now wondering how old ag slang and its variants are. I’ve tried looking it up in the Oxford Companion to the English Language but it’s pretty hazy about the subject – not to say snooty. The OCEL calls it ‘Infix’ a term dating back to the 1880s which is where ‘the speaker inserts a nonsense syllable’ before a vowel sound to make it difficult for non-infix speakers to understand what’s being said.

  7. It has been many years since I thought of Ag Slang. I believe my Aunt taught it to me, though I never used it much.
    It’s quite fun to have a secret language and it can indeed be very useful.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Huon. The important thing about ag-slang is that you need to practice it with another ag-slang speaker until you are both fluent. After that, you never forget it. When I rang round my cousins before writing the blog, neither of them had spoke it for over forty years – but they both replied, fluently, almost at once.

  8. Loved this especially because it reminded me of pig latin which was the secret language we children spoke in the USA in the 1940s. Pig latin works by taking the first letter, or first 2 letters, of a word and putting it at the end with “ay”. So ancay ouyay eakspay igpay atinlay? It used to drive the grown-ups wild with irritation. Feeling gleeful just thinking about it. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jess – I can feel your glee! There’s something about having secrets from the adults which is universally appealing, I suspect.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Cerise – and welcome to my blog. From the various comments I’ve received, ag slang of some sort seems to have been used in the UK and the USA for at least 100 years – I wonder if it is mostly a ‘girl’ thing?

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