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A portion of chapter 16 of Dickens' Bleak House is shown below.

Jo attends closely while the words are being spoken; [...] and nods his ragged head.

"I'm fly," says Jo. "But fen larks, you know. Stow hooking it!"

"What does the horrible creature mean?" exclaims the servant, recoiling from him.

"Stow cutting away, you know!" says Jo.

I don't understand either the gist or the details of what Jo says in the above. I've assumed I'm fly means he understands or is agreeable or something; that fen is a noun or verb and larks is vice versa; that stow means stop or quit; that hooking it and cutting away mean getting away. However, I don't understand what he is trying to communicate. Any ideas on Jo's meaning? (I presume it's all explained in annotated versions of the book, but I don't have an annotated copy; and the numerous occurrences of this passage on the web that I've looked at are given as examples of difficult-to-understand parts of Dickens, without explanation of the meaning.)

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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Bear in mind that neither the 'servant' nor Dickens' respectable middle-class readers were expected to understand this; it is the slang of the (illiterate) gutter-snipes. Knowing Dickens, I imagine it is an accurate rendering; but he carefully avoids making understanding necessary to the plot.

For what it's worth, I would say that fly survives in slang meaning 'knowing', so I'm fly would mean 'I understand'; fen is an adjective meaning marsh-related (there's a reference later to the 'mire') and larks means (via 'partying') affairs or business, so that fen larks means 'Follow my customs if you come with me'; and Stow hooking it, which he explains as meaning stow cutting away, means 'stop "recoiling from" me or pretending you're not with me'. But I'm not at all certain, and there is a distinct shortage round here of street-urchins who would interpret for a few pennies.

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3  
I can pretty much go with all this. The most important point being that Dickens wouldn't have expected even his readers at the time to understand Jo's vernacular. I've no doubt I'm fly does indeed mean I'm on the ball/I understand all this. But this says fen larks means no cheating, which seems more likely than any marsh-related meaning (fen=fain=forbid). So possibly stow hooking it/cutting away have more the sense of don't be evasive/don't beat about the bush. –  FumbleFingers Jun 7 '12 at 22:19

"Marsh-related partying"? Nah.

Fen larks means "play fair" or "no cheating!" Stow hooking it/cutting away means "no running away!"

She asked him to keep his distance and not to look at her, he's telling her "okay, but no running off without paying me!"

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2  
Sounds plausible, but do you have a source to verify this? –  Nate Eldredge Dec 26 '12 at 23:11

The Barnes & Noble Classics Edition, with notes by Tatiana Holway contains the following footnote in clarification of the first line spoken by Jo in this passage:

I understand. ... But no tricks, you know! Don't try running off!

For the second, it has the footnote:

Don't try running away.

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J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, in Slang and Its Analogues (1890–1904), cover most of the slang terms used by Jo in the line

"I'm fly," says Jo. "But fen larks, you know. Stow hooking it!"

Bleak House was published in 1852, and Farmer & Henley use the novel as a reference for several slang terms, so the authors were certainly interested in the particular meanings of Jo's various terms. Here are Farmer & Henley's relevant definitions:

FLY, ...Adj. (common.)—1.Knowing ; ARTFUL (q.v.) ; up to every move ; cute [in the sense of acute]. Also FLY TO, A-FLY, FLY TO THE GAME,and FLY TO WHAT'S WHAT. ... 2. (common).—Dextrous.

FEN, ... Verb (schoolboys').—(also FEND, FAIN, FAINITS, etc.). A term of warning, or of prohibiion : as to prevent any change in the existing conditions of a game ; e.g., at marbles, FEN-PLACINGS=no alteration in position of marbles is permissible ; FEN-CLEARANCES=removal of obstacles is forbidden. [FEND=M.E. defend in sense of 'to forbid.']

LARK, subs, (colloquial.)—1. See quot. 1811 {which reads as follows: "Lex. Bal., s.v. LARK. A piece of merriment. People playing together jocosely"}. [A corruption of M.E. lak, laik, from A.S. lac = game, sport; cogn. with Icl. leikr = game ; Sw. lek; Dan. leg; Goth laiks].

STOW, verb. (Old Cant).—1. To hold one's tongue; to keep quiet; to leave off

HOOK, ...TO TAKE 9or SLING) ONE's HOOK (or TO HOOK IT), verb. phr. (common.)—To decamp ; to run away.

So collectively the words mean essentially what Anon Y Mous and Phillip in Atlanta say in their answers:

I understand. But no games, and don't think of running way.

Dickens repeats the use of "hook it" in chapter 46 of Bleak House, where Jo tells Allan Woodcourt (a doctor) of a conversation Jo had with Inspector Bucket just before running away:

'Hook it! Nobody wants you here,' he ses. 'You hook it. You go and tramp,' he ses. 'You move on,' he says. 'Don't let me ever see you nowheres within forty mile of London, or you'll repent it.'

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