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.
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