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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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2 Answers 2

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

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