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A British government research report last week on how to prevent burglaries pointed the finger at the malign influence of rookeries.

In something like the sense the writers mean, this word has been around in the language since the end of the eighteenth century. The poet George Galloway was the first person known to have used it in print, in 1792. Then it was a slangy term for what the Oxford English Dictionary describes, with a nice drawing away of its academic skirts, as “a cluster of mean tenements densely populated by people of the lowest class”.

By Victorian times these slums had become the most disreputable and notorious parts of every large British city. The most famous was the St Giles Rookery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, in the heart of London. Charles Dickens, who described the low-life of these areas as well as anybody, wrote in Sketches by Boz:

Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three ... filth everywhere — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind — clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

No wonder observers found the word for a colony of treetop nests described it best; the rook is such a noisily conversational and sociable bird that there have even been fanciful stories of rook parliaments.

The slang to rook, to cheat or steal, looks as though it came from a link with these slums, but the verb was already well established by Shakespeare’s time. The bird’s supposedly thieving habit was the source, something that today we associate more with the magpie. A rookie, as an inexperienced new member of a group, may have started off as a child employed as a rook scarer in farm fields, though others say it’s just a form of recruit. Though the bird doesn’t occur in North America, rookery was borrowed late last century to describe the slums of cities such as New York and San Francisco.

But such fetid concentrations of humanity don’t exist in Britain any more. The writers of the report instead seem to be using the word to describe a group of criminal families that form a well-established network, of a kind found on many run-down public housing estates on the fringes of our big cities. It’s a natural enough development of the old sense, which intimately associated rookeries with crime, but we’ve moved a long way from the overcrowded slums evoked by its earlier users.

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Page created 30 Oct 1999