‘Sorry, I’m a bit Mutt and Jeff’(Deaf)
‘What happened to me? Let’s get down to the brass tacks here! I had a real barney rumble with the Old Dutch. I came back from the battle cruiser, mince pies a bit glazed, not too steady on the scotch eggs and nearly tripped over the bowler hat on the way up the apple and pears. She said I could at least have got on the dog and bone and thrown in my titfer and straightened my Peckham Rye.
She thought I‘d been with a bird but honest governor, I hadn’t. After leaving the battle cruiser, I felt like a bit of a Duke of York and just went for a Ruby Murray on my Todd Sloane and what do I get? A punch in the Hampstead Heath off the trouble and strife. Can you Adam and Eve it?’ No, no, hang on now, no need to have a giraffe.’
This is not a quotation from ’Only Fools and Horses’ but it could well have been. Such sort of conversation between Del Boy and Boycie was loved by viewers, regardless of culture or geographical location, no matter if you were not born within the sound of Bow Bells. It is, of course, an example of Cockney Rhyming Slang.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
Cockney Rhyming Slang has its origins in the mid 19th Century. It is not just a piece of local dialect. It is a form of code, perhaps used between costermongers to confuse customers or for a more sinister reason, used by villains to outwit the constabulary in the East End of London during the mid 1800’s. Today, such vocabulary has infiltrated every day speech. Well, use your loaf and you will no doubt agree!
Cockney Rhyming slang is a play on the sound of the last word. Adam and Eve it =believe it. Take a butchers (hook ) =look. Apples and Pears=stairs: perhaps a good name for a stairlift company! Ruby Murray=curry. Brass Tacks=facts. Hampstead Heath =teeth. Mince pies=eyes. Scotch eggs=legs and so forth. As a user of hearing aids I sometimes find myself saying, not without a degree of embarrassment, ‘Sorry. I’m a bit Mutt and Jeff’ (deaf), even with the help of my digital hearing aids.
As a proud North Staffordshire lad, born a long way from Bow Bells but, with somewhat of an inquisitive nature, this made me wonder about the origins of such an odd expression. I was surprised by what I discovered. I am writing shortly after Remembrance Sunday. Once again I was moved by the many hundreds of veterans on parade at the Cenotaph and at countless war memorials around the word. The poppies and the medals a reminder of suffering and valour from the past and still relevant in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was able to forge a link between the World Wars, military decorations, code breaking and my search for the origins of the expression ‘Mutt and Jeff’ (deaf) in Cockney Slang. I think that there was much more than rhyming sounds behind the choice of these particular words.
Cracking the Code
Codes are fascinating things. They are found in languages, art, ancient tombs and Roman catacombs, freemasonry and most religions. We are surrounded by signs and symbols, some with ancient origins, used as coded messages. In fact if we are a bit hard of hearing it can appear that other people are speaking in a code we quite can’t understand, sounding like they are missing words out or saying one word which sounds like another to us.
The Fish Sign
(No, not a sign on the Bethlehem branch of Harry Ramsden’s!)
In the early days of the Faith, to be a Christian in the Roman Empire was not a safe thing to be. During 303-311 AD the Emperor Diocletian conducted a savage persecution against the Church. This was to be the largest and most bloody official persecution of Christianity under Roman rule. It came to an end in 324 AD when Constantine The Great, thought to be the first Christian Roman Emperor, declared Christianity as the official religion of his Empire. This may have been a political move rather than a matter of faith. The Empire was under attack from outside powers and he could not afford to be fighting his own people on the inside. By this time Christianity was still growing, even in the army, in spite of Diocletian’s efforts to stamp it out. Constantine may have seen Christianity as the cement to hold together a crumbling Empire.
During the long period of persecution, Christians used secret signs to identify themselves to others. One of these was to draw the sign of the fish, perhaps in the sand, after which it would be scrubbed out. Why use a fish?
ICTHUS – Greek for fish. That hardly answers the question until we try our hand at a bit of decoding.
We are dealing with a Greek word so we need to look at the alphabet perhaps.
Iota (I) Iesous = Jesus
Chi (Kh) Khristos = Christ
Theta (th) Theou = God
Upsilon (u) Huios = Son
Sigma (s) Soter = Saviour
So, there we find our answer – we have become code breakers!
The writer Ben Brown made good literary and financial use of our fascination with secret codes and few of us failed to be enthralled by sinister plots in ‘The Da Vinci Code’. But the real world is more interesting than that of fiction.
Bletchley Park –‘ Home of the modern computer’.
As a part of the annual season of Remembrance, a documentary traced the highly secret and essential activity which was carried out at a mansion in Bletchley in Buckinghamshire, now part of Milton Keynes. The impressive hall had been bought by a builder with a view to redevelopment. It was bought off him in 1938 by one Sir Hugh Sinclair for ‘shooting parties’. Sinclair was actually an admiral and head of MI6. Its activity had a code name, ULTRA and it gathered high level intelligence during World War 11. Working under cover, staff at Bletchley, largely women, had the task of listening to and decoding German signals, especially tracking U-Boat activity. Bletchley became the home of GCCS – the Government Code and Cipher Centre. Today, the work is continued in Cheltenham at what is now known as GCHQ (Government Communication HQ).
‘The geese that laid the golden egg and never cracked.’
Winston Churchill referring to the staff at Bletchley Park
Much of the work, but not exclusively, involved the use of a decoder – the Enigma Machine.
Here is the irony. The Enigma decoder was invented by a German, Arthur Scherbius to protect commercial security. Before the onset of war, he offered the patent to the German military who showed no interest. They evidently did see its value at a later time and began to send out secret coded messages. A German invention was to go on to play a significant part in their final defeat!
How did the British acquire the Enigma Machine?
The answer to that seems to lie in a web of secrecy and intrigue worthy of James Bond or The Bourne Identity. Hans Thilo Schmidt was an employee of the German Armed Forces Cryptographic HQ. He was also a German spy (Code name Asche or Source D.) Schmidt sold his inside information and allowed his French Spymaster to photograph a stolen Enigma Machine which finished up in the hands of the Polish Cipher Bureau. A Polish mathematician, Marian Rejewski, remarkably, reconstructed the machine and revealed to the British and the French how they had decrypted German ciphers. The cloned machine was in the hands of the Allies.
A coded language, way more important than Cockney Slang, was able to be cracked, playing a significant role in the allied defeat of Hitler.
However, my search for a poignant origin of ‘Mutt and Jeff’ (Deaf) had yet to be resolved. It was again war which was the link, not World War II but World War I. I also discovered an interesting connection with nothing more innocent than newspaper comic strips from the same period 1914 – 1918.
There was a long running British newspaper cartoon which first appeared in 1919 in The Daily Mirror and the Sunday Chronicle. It was called ‘The Adventures of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’. Conceived by Bertram Lamb and illustrated by Austin Bowen Payne, it featured an orphaned family of animals.
Dad, Pip, was a dog. Mum, Squeak, was a penguin and the child, Wilfred, was a rabbit with very long ears. Rather an unlikely challenge for genetics perhaps!
Such was the humour of the British Tommie that ‘Pip Squeak and Wilfred’ became the knick names of three out of five British Campaign medals issued during the First World War
1914 Star (Mons Star) British war Medal Victory Medal
‘Pip ‘Squeak’ ‘Wilfred’
An early WW1 aircraft was the Blackburn Kangaroo. It was not a great success, although one did sink a U-Boat (UC-70) in August 1917. The RAF was formed in 1918. By 1919 there were just three Kangaroos remaining, used by the RAF as dual trainers. The comic characters names were to be used again when the RAF Blackburn Kangaroos were known as what else but Pip Squeak and Wilfred. If you have had a hearing test yourself you will know just what percentage of the “pips and squeaks” you are able to hear in your headphones. Read on for more comic capers and to find out more about the most well known phrase associated with being a bit deaf.
The Blackburn Kangaroo
It was by following this line of research that finally led me to my quarry. The origin of the Cockney Slang for deafness has its origin in another comic strip of the day. Our generation have had our classic comic pairs such as Morecombe and Wise and The Two Ronnies, but my pair was to appear way back in 1908, the same pre-WW1 era: their names? ‘Mutt and Jeff’.
Mutt and Jeff were an odd couple! Augustus Mutt was tall but dim-witted. He was a’racetrack’ character and a compulsive gambler on horses, motivated by greed. He had a wife, only ever referred to as ‘Mrs Mutt’ and a son, ‘Cicero’. Jeff was a diminutive character and a resident in an asylum for the insane. He too had a passion for horse racing. (A spin-off appeared in 1933 featuring Desdemona, Cicero’s pet cat.) The key is that they were a pair. When only the British War Medal and Victory Medal are displayed as a pair they became known as ‘Mutt and Jeff’.
So at last I have traced the origin of the expression. But, why was it built into Cockney Slang?
It is pure conjecture on my part, but I think that it was a result of the onset of tinnitus and probably impaired hearing or even total deafness as a result of exposure to loud noise in the trenches and on the battlefield. I have not traced any medical records to support my theory, but then there would not be. Shell shock was often dismissed as cowardice, so impaired hearing or deafness would be unlikely to be acknowledged in 1914-1918 records. Having said that, by the end of World War 1, 80,000 cases, including those of the soldier poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, had been acknowledged.
Today, the military are still assessing the link between combat noise and deafness in Afghanistan and other theatres of war. However what is apparent from studies on American war veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq is that
- Fully two thirds of infantry who have been exposed to a blast have suffered ongoing loss of hearing.
- Nearly half of all veterans have tinnitus or ringing in the ears for months or years later.
If you are having trouble with your ‘King Lears’ and are a bit ‘Mutt and Jeff’, then accept that you need help and go for a hearing test – you will not get any medals, just a better quality of life.