Brad Pitt and the Pikey Culture: a Look at the Shelta Language
Auto Beauty Business Culture Dieting DIY Events Fashion Finance Food Freelancing Gardening Health Hobbies Home Internet Jobs Law Local Media Men's Health Mobile Nutrition Parenting Pets Pregnancy Products Psychology Real Estate Relationships Science Seniors Sports Technology Travel Wellness Women's Health

Brad Pitt and the Pikey Culture: a Look at the Shelta Language

Brought to world attention by Brad Pitt’s character Mickey in the popular 2000 film, Snatch, the term “Pikey” is a pejorative, slang term used mainly in the UK to refer to Irish Travelers, gypsies, and people of low social class, groups who refer to themselves as “Pavees” and call their language Shelta.

Brought to world attention by Brad Pitt’s character Mickey O'Neil in the popular 2000 film, Snatch, the term “pikey” is a pejorative, slang term used mainly in the UK to refer to Irish Travellers, Gypsies, and people of low social class. 

The Irish of the "pikey" culture, however, refer to themselves as “Pavees,” and call their language (which is neither Irish nor English) Shelta.

Brought to the US during the late 19th century, the derivative “piker” is used even today in Appalachian America to refer to someone who is stingy, while in Australia it is applied to someone who refuses to do something within a group.

Found in old English, and remaining nearly unchanged through the centuries, pikey has long been associated with itinerant life and constant travel, with pikey directly derived from "pike," which during the 16th century meant to "go away from, to go on" and related to the words turnpike (toll-road) and pike-man (toll-collector). The term probably applies directly to those who continually use the pike or turnpike road.

Image credit

Linguists assume that the term pikey was probably in common use during William Shakespeare's lifetime, referenced in Andrew Boorde's 1547 text Gypsy Politics and Social Change: "Egipcions be swarte and doth go disgsy'd in theyr apparel, contrary to other nacyons: they be lyght fyngered, and use pyking."

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the earliest use of pikey to an August 1883 article in The Times which referred to strangers who had come to the Isle of Sheppey as “pikey-men.”

In 1847, J. O. Halliwell in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words recorded the use of pikey to mean a Gypsy. And in 1887, W. D. Parish and W. F. Shaw in the Dictionary of Kentish Dialect recorded the use of the word to mean "a turnpike traveller; a vagabond; and so generally a low fellow.” Likewise, Hotten's Dictionary of Slang defines pikey as “to go away” and Pikey as a tramp or a Gypsy. He also lists “pikey-cart” as an habitable vehicle suggestive of aimless country life.

The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society contends that the term pikey solely applied (negatively) to Gypsies; the connotation linking gypsies to petty theft, crime, and general low socioeconomic activities, as the text "Understanding Representation" states: “Pikey is one of the negative words associated with gypsies: people who fight and steal equals ‘pikeys.’ It includes fortune-tellers such as the famous Gypsy Rose Lee.”

In 1937, then-US Senator Harry S. Truman compared the banking industry of the 1930s, whom he referred to as “pikers,” to the notorious bank robber Jesse James.  During this period, pikey was commonly applied to Irish Travellers (who were also labeled “tinkers” and “knackers“), as well as non-Roma Gypsies who followed a similar lifestyle.

In 2003 the Firle Bonfire Society of Sussex, England, burned an effigy of a family of gypsies inside a caravan after travelers damaged local land. The license plate on the caravan read P1KEY.  A storm of protests and accusations of racism rapidly followed.  Although twelve members of the society were subsequently arrested, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence to proceed on a charge of “incitement to racial hatred.” 

In the past decade, the definition of pikey became even looser and is sometimes used to refer to a wide section of the generally urban underclass population of the country (in the UK generally known as chavs), or merely a person of any social class who "lives on the cheap" such as might be termed a bohemian.  As illustrated by the 2000 Guy Ritchie film Snatch, the negative English attitudes towards pikeys is an ongoing social reality of the British Isles.

The currrent (2010) Oxford History of English notes that: "young people who use charver or pikey to identify a contemporary style of dress or general demeanor suggest an aimless "street" lifestyle, unaware of the Romany origin of the first, or of connotation with "gypsy" of the second. 

Scally, a corresponding label originating in the North West of England, was taken up by the media and several websites, only to be superseded by chav.  A very recent survey has unearthed 127 synonyms, with “ned” favored in Scotland, “charver” in North East England, and “pikey” across the South of England.

Pikey vocabulary and language is vastly dissimilar to English.  For example:

English/Pikey:

i, (me)

you, (mate)

he, (‘im)

she, (‘er)

it, (da)

we, (us)

you, (bheys)

they, (dem)

van/pickup truck, (tippidid)

sibling/brother, (nuvver bruva)

look chaps, (whoop/madey)

anything, (nuf)

no, (naan)

fit, (buff ting)

yes, (yeop)

mother, (me-ma)

Note:  As the Shelta language is not my first, second, or even third language, I invite anyone with more insight to add comments and corrections to this discussion.  Thank you.

References:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7446274.stm

Gypsy Lore Society, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society The Society of Gypsy Lore, volume 6

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pikey

http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Pikey

http://www.altalang.com/beyond-words/2009/02/06/ya-like-dags-a-note-on-pavee-language/

 Images via Wikipedia.org except where credited otherwise

Related Articles:

The Gullah Langauge

>  Language and the Study of History

American Gangsters of the 20th Century

American Banks

>  Gun Fighters of the Old West

>  The Role of Blacks in Colonial America

>  New York's Greenwich Village

>  Voyage to American Before Columbus

Grammar in Perspective: Who Does it Benefit?

>  The Spanglish Language

>  The Ebonics Language

>  The Klingon Language

The Yiddish Language

Visit JAMES R. COFFEY WRITING SERVICES & RESOURCE CENTER for more information

Need an answer?
Get insightful answers from community-recommended
experts
in Linguistics on Knoji.
Would you recommend this author as an expert in Linguistics?
You have 0 recommendations remaining to grant today.
Comments (5)

Brilliant work, James. I didn't know the term had spread to America, nor that it had such a long history. I'm amazed you know about the term 'chav'. I hate the word because it's mainly used by illiberal middle class people to demonise the so-called underclass, which is much easier than trying to solve the problems that give rise to it. It's true that 'charver' was once more common here in the North East, but it's gradually being phased out by 'chav' due to its prevalence in the media. May I take this opportunity to apologise for the works of Guy Richtie.

Thanks for the additional insight, Michael. (No need to take responsibility for Richtie, my friend!) The term piker, as in "Don't be such a piker," was a common phrase around Irish Pennsylvania, tho my father couldn't remember exactly the origin. For my first project in Anthropologocal Linguistics--a hundred a years ago--I decided to do some research. After doing so, some of my own ethic history came boldly to light. It's quite likely my great grandparents were indeed "Pikers."

Thanks, James. The history of dialects is not my area, but I do find it fascinating. Have you encountered a dialect from North East England known as 'Pitmatic'? It was spoken in the coalfields and contains some interesting words that are still in use today. I wrote an article about it once, and another about Piccadilly Palare, which is altogehter different! Thanks again for such an enlightening study.

Michael, while I'm rather confident that I've encountered these dialects, it's hard to be certain. Quite predictably, a langauge will be re-named as a matter of course in reclaiming it. But, Western Pennsylvania and the mountain region of West Virginia has dozens of Irish/English dialects being perpetuated, many of which have no name at all, or are called, for example, "The Bottom Land" language. Or the "Murphey Land" dialect. It's very hard to know what they may have been termed in other parts of the world.

Great. I learnt a lot from this article. Thanks.

ARTICLE DETAILS
RELATED ARTICLES
RELATED CATEGORIES
ARTICLE KEYWORDS