What was ‘flash’ language?

Convicts transported to NSW brought a lot of different things with them. In some cases this included their own slang language, called ‘flash’.

In 1812 a convict named James Hardy Vaux recorded a long list of ‘flash’ words that were being used in NSW around that time.

Most of the words he included had been created by criminals in London, who used them to evade and confuse the authorities.

Flash [is] the language of the thieves,
or the low Londoners…

Sydney Gazette, 29 January, 1831

In the colony, too, using ‘flash’ words was a way for convicts to resist authority and conceal their intentions from those in charge – such as their assigned masters or the overseers of work gangs.

However, not all transported convicts were ‘career criminals’ familiar with this language.

Most had committed a 'petty' crime (like pickpocketing or stealing clothes) because they were poor and were trying to survive. To these convicts ‘flash’ would have probably been confusing.

Because 'flash' language was meant to be secret, if the meaning of a word was discovered by the authorities a new word might have to be used instead.

Hear some ‘flash’ language

Can you de-code what the convicts are saying?

Use the select list of ‘flash’ words below to help you.

Men dressed as convicts seated at wooden table eating and drinking.
Groups of convicts talking in a secret language would have made the authorities nervous and uncomfortable. Photo © Fiona Morris for Sydney Living Museums

Why did Vaux write the list?

Vaux first wrote the list in 1812 for a local Newcastle magistrate called Thomas Skottowe, to help him understand what criminals might be saying.

In 1819 Vaux published it, under the title: 
A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language.

Most documents about convicts were written by the government and did not use slang or 'flash' words. This makes Vaux's list a valuable historical source because it documents the convict perspective

The Hyde Park Barracks opened the same year that Vaux published his list.

So it is possible that some of the convicts who stayed there would have known, and used, these words.

Botany Bay slang

Convicts came from all over the British Empire, but mostly from the United Kingdom (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.)

They also came from rural towns and industrial cities, from different social classes and would have had different levels of education.

This mix meant that over time lots of other slang words and sayings would have found their way to the NSW colony, creating a rich mix of language that changed and adapted over time.

By the 1820s the term ‘Botany Bay slang’ was being used in newspapers, to describe a certain style of language being used around the town of Sydney. Unfortunately, unlike Vaux’s list of flash words, no record of this language exists.

Flash language: list of terms

bad
a convict who cooperates with police and officials
bellowser
a man transported for the term of his natural life
bit-faker
a coiner, maker of counterfeit money
bolter
one who runs away or leaves a place suddenly
boned
taken into custody
breech’d
flush with money, ‘in town’
brisket-beater
a Roman Catholic
bug
nickname given to Englishmen by the Irish
bush’d
poor, without money
buz cove
a pickpocket
buz covess
a female pickpocket
charley
a watchman
cly-faker
a pickpocket
cockatoo
a convict who served a sentence on Cockatoo Island
cracksman
a house-breaker
crap’d
hanged
croppy
a convict (originally an Irish convict)
darbie'd
fettered (wearing chains or irons)
done
convicted
file
a person who has had a long course of experience in the arts of fraud
floor'd
so drunk as to be incapable of standing
fly
vigilant, cunning, not easily duped
galloot
a soldier
grab'd
taken, apprehended
horney
a constable
in town
flush with money, ‘breech’d’
kid
a child, but particularly a boy who begins thieving at an early age
kinchen
a young lad
knuckler
a pickpocket
lifer
someone transported with a life sentence
lag
a convict under sentence of transportation
lagger
a sailor
lushy cove
a drunken man
lushy
drunk, intoxicated
mollisher
a woman
nibb'd
taken into custody
nibbler
a pilferer or petty thief
pall
a partner, companion, associate or accomplice
pebble
a convict whose behaviour is incorrigible
prig
a thief
pulled up
taken into custody, in confinement
queer gam’d
bandy legged, or having otherwise deformed legs
queer
bad, counterfeit, false, unwell in health
qock’d
forgetful, absent in mind
rump’d
flogged or scourged
sevener
a convict sentenced to a term of seven years’ transportation
scamp
a highwayman, man who commits robbery on the highway
scrag’d
hanged
scurf’d
taken into custody
shook
synonymous with ‘rock’d’
slang’d
fettered (wearing chains or irons)
sneaksman
a man or boy who ‘goes upon the sneak’ (robs houses or shops)
sharp
a gambler, cheat or swindler
swell
a gentleman or any well-dressed person
swish’d
married
swoddy
a soldier
tobyman
a highwayman
toddler
an infirm elderly person
top’d
hanged
ticketer
man or woman holding a ticket of leave
up in the stirrups
a man who is ‘in Swell Street’, that is, having plenty of money
vardo-gill
waggoner