SUE DE GROOT | Jailhamsters ducked out of their stripes through some cagey fakery

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

22 September 2020 - 19:10
The word 'quack' reportedly comes from the Afrikaans 'kwaksalwer', which goes back to the Dutch 'kwakzalver', which literally meant 'a hawker of salve' - a medical charlatan.
Cure-all The word 'quack' reportedly comes from the Afrikaans 'kwaksalwer', which goes back to the Dutch 'kwakzalver', which literally meant 'a hawker of salve' - a medical charlatan.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, fake news (or alternative facts, or post-truth, or mis/disinformation or whatever you want to call it) was not invented by Donald “herd mentality will save us”​ Trump. It is as old as that evil woman who claimed a snake taught her to read, which is how she learnt about the benefits of apples.

Even a few of the words we use today are a direct result of ancient fake news. “Jailbird,” according to some etymologists, came into use after England’s King Edward I hung cages containing women supporters of his dethroned enemy, Robert the Bruce, outside a castle.

One of the imprisoned women was young Marjorie Bruce, princess of Scotland and a mere child at the time. The young adult novel Girl in a Cage is about her.

This happened in the early 1300s and many claim that the word jailbird (originally gaolbird) was coined as a result.

Thing is, the women and girls were not hung outside in cages. Myth-busting blogger David Maclaine investigated and found that the king’s orders were actually to build fairly roomy cages inside a turret in the castle so the women wouldn’t escape and rouse an apple-eating army. (Not that keeping women in indoor cages is in any way okay, mind, but it’s better than being hung outside in English weather.)

Were it not for this exaggerated piece of reporting, instead of jailbirds we might have ended up calling all prisoners today “jailhamsters” (assuming there was a treadmill for exercise in the medieval cages). So perhaps fake news is not always a bad thing.

Jailbirds have their own languages, or slanguages. Hardly anyone seems to have written about the lighter sort of lingo spoken in SA prisons, although there are volumes of information about the chilling abbreviations used by criminal gangs who have numbers instead of names. I’m not going there today.

It is said that sometimes ducks and quacks work hand in glove to help a prisoner feign illness and get out of sewing class.

There are a few palatable tidbits. In SA as well as in British and American prisons a “fish” (sometimes a pilchard) is a newcomer who is somewhat out of his natural element. 

In many prisons where English is mainly or partly spoken, starting a few centuries ago a “quack” was a prison doctor, or rather a prison officer who dispenses medicine but is not in fact a real doctor.

SA might have donated this duck noise to the world. According to The Guardian the word “quack”, which broke out of prison and entered the civilian lexicon, comes from the Afrikaans kwaksalwer. The Online Etymology Dictionary takes this back to the Dutch kwakzalver, which literally meant “a hawker of salve” (today we might say snake-oil salesman) and referred to a medical charlatan from about the 1630s.

A US website called Prison Writers (which provides a publishing service for prisoners of literary bent) has “quack” in its prison-speak glossary as well as “duck”. 

No batting side wants a duck in cricket but in the US penal system, where a duck is a gullible prison guard easily manipulated by his charges, ducks are highly sought after. 

It is said that sometimes ducks and quacks work hand in glove to help a prisoner feign illness and get out of sewing class.

Speaking of gloves, Cockney rhyming slang comes into its own in British prisons. Gloves, in this argot, are “turtles” (turtle doves = gloves). 

Let’s hope Trump forgets to put on a pair of turtles next time he steals the headlines. If his fingerprints are found and believed not to be fake, he might finally end up as a fish in the cage.