Tramp Signs and Slang
Tramps and other travellers are often said to make use of secret signs. Such signs, scratched outside houses along the route, are used to pass on information or warnings about the treatment to be expected at a particular house. Some of the signs reckoned to be most widely used ones are listed below.
(Tick) "Yes" or "all right"
(Cross in circle) "A Christian household"
(Coins) "Money may be given here"
(Table) "A sit-down meal may be on offer""
(Loaf of bread) "Food only"
(Interlocking squares) "Threats may produce something"
(Box) "Spin them a tale" or "Eloquence may get a response"
(part of X?) "No" or "Nothing doing".
(Bars) "Police may be informed or called"
(Dot in circle) "Police may be called"
(Dot in square) "Possibility of violence"
(Teeth) "Fierce dog!"
(Sickle) "Work may be offered"
(Triangle) "Too many have called recently"
Frank Gray, who became became well acquainted with tramps and their habits was rather sceptical about the supposed use of secret signs by tramps. In his view, tramps were much likely to keep their intelligence of a neighbourhood to themselves, particularly when it came to generous households.
Bawd: heavy drinker
Bone: good, or good pickings
Boss: any stranger who seems likely to be sympathetic to a beggar
Bum dive: doss house
A Call: a house where tramp always can get something
Coins: thonicks = halfpenny; kenuck or saltee = penny; duce = tuppence; thrummer = threepence; groat = fourpence; sprat or sprowsie = sixpence; deaner or midget = shilling; toskeroon: = half-a-crown
Con: beg with a false story
Cooper: a casual ward to be avoide
Dolly mop: prostitute
Dolly shop: receiver's kitchen
Doss: place to sleep
Fanny: tall tale
Flowery Annie: a cheap-jack
Freeman's pick-up cigarette ends
Gad: to go about
Gag: begging-ploy or hard-luck story
Gagger: one who tells such stories
Gammy: bad, dubious, unfavourable (i.e. a 'gammy house' = not safe for a beggar to call at.)
Griddler: street hymn singer
Grubbikens: workhouses where little workj is demanded of casuals.
Kerbstone Twist: old chews of tobacco
Kidding: acting as a beggar's stooge by pretending to buy articles, to encourage others
Kife: a bed
Lord Nosey: casual ward official
Milestone Inspector: veteran tramp
Moniker: name or signature
Lurk: beggar's dodge or performance
Moucher: itinerant or wandering beggar
Needy Mizzler: dosser who bilks or decamps from a lodging-house without paying
On the Cross: anything stolen
Pack: house of a poor man
Pad: beggar's pitch
Paddincan: lodging house
Pedlar's licence: bible
Peg: any place where a free meal can be obtained
Picking a poke: stealing a purse
Prison sentences: carriage drag = 7 days; a moon = 1 month; a drag = 3 months; half stretch = 6 months; a stretch = 1 year.
Punk and plaster: bread and margarine
Quick nip: flea
(In) Quod: in jail
Rasher wagon: frying pan
The Rats: delirium tremens
Scran: casual ward bread
Screever: professional writer of begging letters
Snells: pedlar's wares
Sob moosh: street singer
Son of rest: tramp
Sporting house: brothel
Spike: the casual ward
Stiff: phoney begging letter or a hawker's licence
Tale pitcher: parson
(Doing a) Tear-up: tearing-up of clothes by a tramp in a casual ward in order to get a fresh set
Toby: the highway
Toe-rags: cloth strips wound around the toes to stop them chafing against shoes
Top cook: old vagrant
Vial: provincial town
Weary Willies: those for whom any kind of work is too much
Wheeler: tramp who travels from casual ward to casual ward
- Anon (1957) Tramps' Sign Language in Western Folklore 137-139. (Western States Folklore Society )
- Gray, Frank (1931) The Tramp: his Meaning and Being (London: Dent)
- Rose, L (1988) Rogues and Vagabonds (London: Routledge)
This page () is copyright Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.