The strange language of Harrow School

For the past 30 years, I have lived at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill in north-west London . We drive over the hill constantly. When I go for a walk, it is usually up the hill. Our favourite cafe, “The Doll’s House”, and our favourite restaurant. “Incanto”, are on the hill.

Inevitably, therefore, we are always seeing the buildings and boys of Harrow School, the public school founded in 1572 which dominates the hill (it has 300 acres). This is a boarding school for boys which is like going back in time with the boys wearing straw boaters and the masters wearing mortar boards and cloaks.

Previous students include seven British Prime Ministers and 20% of leavers go to Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Fees for Harrow are £11,095 per term (£33,285 per annum). This is a life which entrenches privilege that stands in opposition to all my political beliefs on  equality and fairness.

Yet I cannot help being fascinated by the institution and some months ago rather enjoyed a Sky television series on the school. The eight-week series is about to be repeated, starting today.

One of the weirdest features of the place is the strange languages used by students and staff.

  • Beak – A master or teacher.
  • Bill or Call-over – Compulsory roll call held in each House three times a day.
  • Bill Book- Small blue book that provides essential information about the School and the term’s calendar.
  • Bluer – Dark blue uniform jacket.
  • Capping – Boys and masters “saluting” each other.
  • Copy – Awarded for 12 send ups or to the top boy in each subject every term. Boys with eight copies win a prize.
  • Custos – The staff member to whom a boy has to report early each morning as a punishment for being late or untidily dressed.
  • Double – A punishment for boys. Basically writing lines. Takes an inexperienced boy around 90 minutes to do 60.
  • Ducker – The school swimming pool.
  • Eccer – Exercise or any form of games.
  • Flannels – School colours for sport. A boy awarded his Flannels for Cricket, Rugby, Football, Harrow Football or for minor sports may wear a grey waistcoat with his tails.
  • Footer – Harrow football.
  • Greyers – Grey uniform trousers.
  • The Guild – Specially-elected group of senior boys who have shown artistic or cultural excellence. They have a distinctive maroon tie and may wear a maroon waistcoat with their tails.
  • House – One of the 12 units housing around 70 boys. Each House has its own sporting colours.
  • Jerks – A house punishment regime normally run at 05:30 each Friday.
  • Locking Up – Deadline; time after which boys must sign out if they wish to leave their House.
  • Matron – Each of the 12 Houses has a female member of staff.
  • Monitor (School) – School prefect.
  • Monitor (House) – House prefect, sometimes called priv.
  • Philathletic Club or The Phil – The best athletes who are allowed to wear a black bow-tie.
  • Queue – Times each day when boys may meet with their House Master to withdraw money, to report send ups and skews, and for other matters of business or concern.
  • Remove – The name given to year 10s in the school
  • Send Up – A ‘special mention’ for a good piece of work that is acknowledged by the housemaster (the opposite of a Skew).
  • Shells—The name for the new boys of the school (year 9s).
  • Shepherd – Remove boy who looks after Shell boys for the first two weeks.
  • Skew – A ‘black mark’ given for a poor piece of work that a boy must redo and give to his housemaster to sign.
  • Speech Room – Place where the weekly gathering as well as some events take place.
  • Sunday dress – Tail coat and striped trousers worn on Sundays and other major occasions.
  • Tolley up – Permission to work after lights out.
  • Torpids – Under 16 House sports team.
  • Tosh- Bath or shower.
  • Trials – Internal School examinations.
  • Yarder – The exercise yard (normally an enclosed quadrangle) in each boarding house where adapted versions of sports are played (for example ‘Yarder Cricket’).
  • Yearlings – Shell teams or groups.


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