Thursday, 1 November 2007


I've recently been watching episodes of a famous 1970s ITV police series called The Sweeney, whose name is rhyming slang: Sweeney Todd (the demon barber of Fleet Street) = Flying Squad, the Metropolitan Police elite quick-response major-crime squad, now officially named the Central Robbery Squad. The term "blag" is used in episodes to mean a violent robbery or raid, a slang term that dates from the 1880s. But there were then - still are - two senses of "blag" in British English, the other meaning to lie or to use clever talk to obtain something, a verb recorded from the 1930s. Both senses are variations on the idea of theft, though they have separate origins. The first may derive from an abbreviation of the word "blackguard" (often pronounced "blaggard"); it's more than likely that the second is from French "blaguer", to tell lies, as the word has at times been spelled "blague". A version of the second sense has been appearing in the British media recently. It refers to what is sardonically called "social engineering": getting passwords, personal details and confidential information over the phone from unsuspecting workers in a government department or business through a persuasive manner coupled with inside knowledge. The trick has long been used by private investigators working for debt collectors, national newspapers and criminals. A man was imprisoned recently for blagging civil servants into giving him the home addresses of 250 people.

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