Shams, Shellbacks and Sons of Rest – a Tramp Terminology.

Ravilious - Wiltshire Landscape

Ravilious – Wiltshire Landscape

This incomplete glossary has been compiled from the works of Jim Phelan ( 1895–1966). For those who have yet to encounter him, Phelan was a tramp author  who produced a number of autobiographies, novels and film scripts during the 20th century.

In his autobiographical material, he explains the meaning of a number of tramp words and terms, many of which have found their way into the current English lexicon. That the tramping community referred to themselves as the ‘Sons of Rest’ was, for me, worth the read alone. This is an incomplete glossary, and I will be adding to it from time to time.

Future posts will also include the tramp glyph system which gave fellow travellers an insight into the kind of welcome they might receive at a particular house (or gaff), and an overview of a frequently misunderstood mode of living with a distinct culture.

Blagging Hard – travelling fast.

Bokht – luck (Romani).

Call – a house where a tramp always gets something.

Castle – the house (or flat/office) of a wealthy person.

Castle-rap – a visit to an opulent residence, unbriefed.

Chal – a person (Romani).

Clod – a penny.

Cock – chief, amongst his kind.

Carver – one who cheats his or her partner.

Croker – fourpence.

Dead Hard Mark – residence or resident unapproachable by ordinary tramps.

Deener – a shilling; also a miser who hoards shillings.

Deputy – man in charge of a paddingcan.

Dollcie – opulent.

Drifter – an amateur tramp.

Drum – a tea can.

Duffy-up – a barrier – a prohibition.

Flash kip – relatively expensive lodgings.

Flattie – a townsman.

Front the gaff – call at the main entrance of a large house.

Gaff – a house.

Giving the strength – briefing a vagrant about his next day’s road.

Give the line – to tell were a certain tramp may be found.

Gry – a horse (Romani).

Hard Mark – a house or person approachable only by expert tramps.

Hitting the Grit – on the road.

Joint – an establishment (Flim-joint – a bank).

Kushto – very good (Romani).

Lark – the particular brand of craft practised by a tramp.

Line of Guff – a tramp’s tale.

Linen – a newspaper.

Lurk – a tramp’s favourite stopping place.

Macadam – the road.

Mark – a house; also its resident; also the signs outside.

Merry – a girl.

Meet – obtain money from.

Moniker – nickname.

Mumper – The Romani word for a tramp (actually a specific kind of tramp who overwinters in the countryside – see An Incomplete Romani Glossary).

Mush – a man (Romani).

Nant – bad luck; the wishing of bad luck.

Padman – a slow moving tramp.

Paddincan – lodging-house used mainly by tramps.

Peter – a bag, swag, or haversack.

Postman – a fast-moving tramp.

Plant – hiding-place.

Prale – brother (Romani).

Pure Sham – wealthy, cultured people.

Ship – the tale.

Shellback – tramp who pretends to be a sailor.

Sham – a gentleman.

Son of Rest – a tramps name for themselves.

Show-out – a hand-sign by which tramps recognise each other.

Splitting the Toby – arranging the next day’s journeys.

Straight-up – the truth.

Shuttler – a tramp who goes back and forth on the same stretch.

Steamer – a mug, a a simpleton.

Sweet – satisfied.

Soft Mark – a house, or its occupant, known as generous.

Toby – the road.

Tapping – begging.

Top-cock – a master-tramp, sure of a good living on may roads.

Vardo – a caravan (Romani).

Webfoot – a tramp from the fen district.

Wheeler – an itinerant pauper, circling near institutions.

Working – working on the marks, telling lines of guff.

Young Mug – an itinerant work-seeker of any age.


Phelan, James (1948). The Name’s Phelan. Sidgwick & Jackson

Phelan, James (1955). Tramping the Toby. Burke

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