February 15, 2018 | Narrative
beans on toast & being british
The other day someone messaged me asking what “cushty” meant.
I’d finished a sentence with the phrase “so that’s all cushty,” which means roughly the same thing as “oh bonza” or “fabby dabby,” which are fun ways of saying “good” while also reminding people that I’m British lest they expect me to develop some sort of actual personality on the spot. Their reply was “huh?” which means “huh?” I did my best to explain. The trouble is, “cushty” doesn’t just mean good, it means good in a sort of relaxed way, a comfortable, easy-going “good” like everything will work itself out. Saving a child from a horrible car wreck is good, finding out his mum is the CEO of a successful takeout franchise and wants to reward you with a lifelong pass for free chicken tikka masala is cushty. Suddenly distracted from my typical midnight pastimes like worrying or masturbating, I set out to find a sufficient definition.
If you search the word “cushty” on Spotify, you will happen upon a 2017 album called Cushty by the artist Beans on Toast. It’s an anti-Brexit protest album in the “drunk-folk” genre, a genre seemingly created and exclusively performed by Beans on Toast. To my delight I found out that Beans on Toast isn’t a band, but a man—real name Jay McCallister. Cushty, his ninth studio album, contains songs like “The House that Austerity Built,” “The Ignorant Englishman,” and “I Think Everybody Should be Terrified.” It doesn’t get more British than a man named Beans on Toast quietly singing in baffled horror about economic anxiety based on isolationist regret. When I searched McCallister on Google images, I found that he looks exactly like what you might expect beans on toast to look like if turned into a human man by an unimaginative child’s wish. It is hard to articulate the joy I felt in that moment. Disappointingly, however, the word “cushty” is not used once in any of his lyrics; I couldn’t find the true meaning of “cushty” through context clues alone.
Once I’d resumed my hunt for the true meaning of “cushty,” I discovered that the word has its recent roots in Cockney slang. I’m from South London, but while all Cockneys are Londoners, not all Londoners are Cockneys. I was born in Croydon, while a true Cockney is a working-class Londoner born within hearing distance of the St. Mary-le-Bow church in the East End. Think Michael Caine or Bob Hoskins, and if at all possible forget the attempts of Dick Van Dyke, Mike Myers, and Don Cheadle. Due to the massive hike in central London housing prices within my lifetime, there are few true Cockneys under the age of 40. Despite that, Only Fools and Horses, the 1981–1996 sitcom about the get-rich-quick schemes of three Cockney geezers, is credited with preserving some Cockney words among a wider British audience, including some of my other favorite terms, like “plonker,” meaning idiot, and “lovely jubbly,” meaning lovely, but with more jubbliness involved.
Cockney should not be confused with the United Kingdom’s thousands of other accents and dialects, which just off the top of my head includes Geordie, Mancunian, Brummie, Estuary, Scouse, West-Country, South Wales, North Wales, Mid-North Wales, and drunk. The origins of this dialectal diversity can often be traced to immigration to Britain. During the 19th century, the East End saw significant Romani settlement, and with it, several new editions to what would become the cockney dialect. One such contribution was the word “kushti.”
The Romani people began their migration from North-West India, the modern Punjab state, nearly 1,500 years ago. Due to the diasporic and insular nature of their often-persecuted community, the Romani language has remained remarkably true to its roots. Before claims of Romani ethnic links to the Indian subcontinent were corroborated by recent DNA evidence, they had been long theorized due to strong linguistic links between the Romani language and both Hindi and Persian.
“Kushti” means “good.” Not only that, but the word’s use is specifically linked to bonding between friends, implying a comfortable environment, a bit like saying “that’s great, mate” or, if you’re American, “that’s hella swella, my fella.” Having made this discovery, I at once felt a sense of undeserved accomplishment and entirely deserved uselessness, considering that “good in a sort of relaxed way” was the definition I hazarded back in paragraph two. But it was already 2 a.m.; no going back now.
“Kushti” entered England through the Romani language, but it didn’t stay there. Instead, it became part of what is know called Angloromani, a form of dialect broadly using English grammar and structure but with many Romani words. In Romani it’s called “Poggaddi Jibb,” meaning “the broken language.” A few such words have entered American English via Britain as well, like “nark” for an informer, “pal” for a friend, “shiv” from “chivomengo,” meaning knife, and “lollipop,” originally a combination of the words for candy and apple. There are even some seemingly nonsense words that have Romani origins. One Romani nursery rhyme begins “yekeri, akairi, you kair an,” meaning “First—here—let us begin.” This might not ring a bell, until you hear its English corruption: “hickory dickory dock.” Other Romani words that have stayed in British English through similar integration include “chav,” usually meaning a working class young person in sportswear (we’ve had a long time to let our prejudices get awfully specific) which comes from the Romani word “chavi” meaning child, and the word “minge,” which you can look up for yourself.
The word “cushty” deserves recognition for its complexity. It’s a reminder that pre-packaged ideas about Britishness, and uniform notions about any national identity, really, are bollocks. There’s no such thing as an English word, only words that somehow ended up in England along the way. I know that sounds a bit sentimental, but I’ve been listening to Beans on Toast’s Brexit protest album on repeat for nearly three hours now, and it’s getting to me a little bit. To quote a wise-ish man who may or may not refer to himself as a legume and cooked bread-based dish, “I’m an Englishman, so what would I know, but we’ve got the same bullshit going on at home.”