Saturday, 31 December 2011

The gavvers are bowling down

The workshops at the British Library for the show Evolving English (2010-11) were some of the best I have been involved in, partly because they gave adolescents the opportunity to feel good and enthusiastic about their own use and experience of their language.  A regular invitation to show off some expressions which they felt were peculiar to their own schools and colleges brought some wonderful phrases.  The one that sticks in my mind was from a secondary school in Maidstone, Kent, where the impending arrival of the local constabulary is heralded with the words ‘the gavvers are bowling down’. 

At first I thought I was being ‘Margaret Meaded’ – not rhyming slang, though I’m looking for an outing for this, but a reference to the way her anthropological subjects provided her with what they thought she wanted to hear (according to her critics), and thus giving rise to some dodgy science in ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’, and reputedly some ‘scientific’ justification for the permissive society in sixties America.  The arguments are worth looking up.

So, with reservations, I was imagining some rather articulate teenagers indulging in teenage activities among the herbaceous borders of the parks of Maidstone warning each other of trouble by using this rather Dickensian phrase.  However, ‘gavvers’ is a long-standing Roma word for the police or soldiers, with strong links to the region of Kent.  ‘Bowling down’ presents more problems; I’ve come across ‘bowling up’ in the sense of ‘arrive without notice’ – e.g. ‘where did you bowl up from?’.  Maybe a mixture of this with ‘bearing down’?  Though a brief Twitter conversation on the nature of phrasal verbs reminds me that looking for reason in phrasal verbs is pointless – ‘bearing down’ meaning nothing like the opposite of ‘bearing up’.  ‘Bowl down’ or ‘bowling down’ as intransitive verb forms do not appear in the Urban Dictionary website, or any other slang dictionary I have come across, or the OED, so must for the time being be put down to very local usage.

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