Skip to content

Colin Taylor, the secret language of Tic-Tac

June 21, 2010
by the gentle author

As soon as Rob Ryan alerted me to the remarkable work of Colin Taylor, a young graphic designer who has been on placement at his studio, I went over immediately to meet Colin at the Central St Martins degree show, held in the atmospheric spaces of the former Nicholls & Clarke building on Shoreditch High St.

Colin, who originates from Dagenham and possesses a keen eye and a generous smile, used to be taken along to the dog races at Walthamstow, Romford and Brighton by his dad, uncle and grandad. “Once,” Colin confided to me, with a broad grin of amazement, “I was sitting next to a tic-tac and I wondered what the hell he was at.” Years later, Colin has returned to the racetracks to investigate the secret world of the tic-tacs and create a unique graphic record of their vanishing language of gestures.

A tic-tac – in case you wondered – is someone who works for a bookmaker at a race track, keeping him apprised of the bets being laid elsewhere and the odds being offered by the other bookies. While this is essential knowledge for any bookie if he is to maintain a competitive edge, it is also information that needs to be communicated discreetly in a form that is not obvious to other parties. Out of this situation arose an ingenious terminology and language of signs which, like its proponent, takes the name “tic-tac.” With tremendous speed and facility, tic-tacs are able to keep the bookie informed, through visual signals, of everything they need to know. The bookies could receive information from as many as four tic-tacs working for them simultaneously, whilst also taking bets from punters. “At the heart of the language was the need for quickness of communication,” explained Colin. In the minutes between each race, the tic-tacs would be continuously signaling everything they saw in front of them.

Inspired by campaigns to record lost languages in remote corners of the globe,  Colin headed down to the racetracks to record the fading language and culture of tic-tac, which declined with the rise of the mobile phone and has not been practised for the last ten years. Little has ever been written of  the language and lore of tic-tac, so Colin set out to record the entire vocabulary while it was still possible, not just the terminology but the hand gestures as well.

It took Colin three months of visiting racetracks, getting to know those there that were once tic-tacs but now work as bookies. At first he encountered resistance, but through perseverance he made friends with a tic-tac called Michael. Once he made this connection, Colin returned each night for the next week to speak more with Michael, and gradually other tic-tacs joined the conversation too. “I think Michael was quite pleased that someone showed serious interest. When I learned that Michael’s father had also been a tic-tac and realised that all the guys still knew the language, it was such a rush of excitement,” admitted Colin, “I wanted them to unload all they knew about the language onto me.” Outlining his approach, Colin said, “Each night I had a plan of specific questions to ask, because I respected the fact that they were trying to work while talking to me.” Eventually Colin persuading the tic-tacs to let him photograph them between races, and his tenacity was rewarded by the tic-tacs running through their entire lexicon of gestures to be recorded by his camera.

Colin’s discoveries reveal something of the intriguing history and origins of the language, which he has arranged in three categories, “Cash Amounts,” reporting the size of bets being laid, “Odd Gestures,” conveying the odds being offered by other bookmakers, and “Trap Numbers,” noting the gates assigned to each dog. All this has been organised by Colin into three elegant books, in which he has honed the text and arranged the type with exemplary typographic judgement, complementing his linocuts that illustrate the gestures with appealing directness and wit. These modest cuts, no more than three inches square, reveal a bold graphic sensibility that references the Beggarstaff Brothers in its confident use of large areas of rich black, combined with an unusual, almost photographic use of light and shade.

Unsurprisingly, Colin himself has now developed a facility for tic-tac, running through any sequence of gestures with practiced ease and able to illustrate more sophisticated techniques whereby the language is communicated by barely perceptible twitches, sufficient for a recipient who already knows the signs. Through his persistence and creativity, Colin has uncovered a neglected area of discourse that has its own culture and history, but he becomes most animated when speaking of the friends that he made at the racetrack – in particular, Michael, whose father was also a tic-tac, and Skinny, a tic-tac in his late seventies with a career of over forty years who still returns to the race track each night, even though he can no longer work. In the end Colin’s project is no mere cultural curiousity,  nor is it an antholopological exercise, it a serious record celebrating a phenomenon that exists as a fine illustration of the endless witty ingenuity of working people.

Bottle refers to odds of two to one. This originates from the early nineteenth century when spruce was used in the production of beer, referred to as a “bottle of spruce” which cost a deuce, leading to the use of “bottle” to convey the value of two. Score originates from the practice of counting sheep in twenties, carving a notch or a score on a stick to keep a tally, hence tap chest with hand. Pony for £25, derives from the pony illustrated on the twenty five rupee note when British soldiers were serving in India, while Monkey for £500 derives from the monkey on the five hundred ruppee note. Grand meaning £1000, is conveyed by the gesture of playing a grand piano.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS