An Education in Slang: From Brazilian TTK to Cockney Slang

As a professional translator, I have always used movies as a means to improve my vocabulary, to teach expressions to my students or as interesting personal translation projects. Movies help you get acquainted with the pronunciation of foreign languages and also discover unknown colloquialisms; film is a very powerful tool.

I remember when I first watched Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I was used to spotting mistakes in Portuguese subtitles, but not this time. I wasn’t sure if the subtitles were correct because I couldn’t understand the slang being spoken. Throughout the film, I was introduced to a myriad of cockney expressions, and with pen, paper and the internet I managed to tackle most of them. Considering that this was around 2004, I must say that finding information online then was no easy task!

Cockney Rhyming Slang

What makes this so difficult — and amazing — is that you either know it or you don’t. It’s officially called cockney rhyming slang, so unless you know what the word or expression is rhyming with, you won’t understand it. This was one of the first movies I had seen with English subtitles for an English-speaking audience! In the pub scene, for instance, you have a whole conversation using slang. When you try to decode them, you see how ingenious they can be.

“Rory’s Roger iron rusted” means Rory’s TV has busted. Roger Mellie rhymes with telly and iron rusted with busted. Or another example, “He then orders an Aristotle of the most ping-pong tiddly in the nuclear sub,” which means “He orders a bottle of the strongest (most strong) drink (tiddly wink) in the pub.” Some say this kind of slang originated around the 1840’s; whether it was created by thieves trying to confuse the police or traders trying to trick customers is not known, but it has developed over time and produced expressions like “Britney Spears” to mean “beers.”

What started as bewilderment quickly became excitement as I yearned to learn more about the nuances of this dialect. Although English is widely spoken around the world, even those who claim to be fluent can’t understand cockney unless they’re born speaking it. It took me some time, but by the end of the film I had learned a lot. I’m not sure I’ll ever speak cockney to anyone, but at least if I hear people speaking it, I won’t think they’re completely David. (David Blane = insane!)

The “TTK” Portuguese Dialect

It is interesting to note that we have something similar in Portuguese called the “TTK” dialect, which is mainly spoken in Rio de Janeiro. Basically, it’s the art of speaking but changing the order of the syllables. So “barco” (ship) would change to “cobar” or “xícara” (cup) to “racaxí”. The “TTK” dialect is not as widely spoken as the cockney dialect, but it is used to disguise something you don’t want people around you to know about.

Whether you work with translation or you are simply interested in languages in general, you will eventually come across an interesting dialect. Nowadays the internet has enough information (and a Cockney Rhyming Slang Dictionary!) to help you understand and translate it. Instead of looking at dialects as a challenge, you should be curious and soak in as much as possible. After all, you never know when this information might be useful!