Tic-Tac – Horse Racing Betting Sign Language

Betting has not always been about flash websites, in-play stats and Ray Winstone’s floating head on adverts. Before the internet revolutionised the industry, and even before betting shops were a staple of the British high street, betting was confined to the horseracing courses and the dog tracks. Setting up stalls in the betting rings these entrepreneurial bookies had a special weapon to stay one step of the punters – a secretive language called tic-tac.

Tic-tac – communicated, unsurprisingly by people called tic-tacs or tic-tac men – was a mixture of sign language and rhyming slang which allowed bookies to stay up to date with what their competition were up to. Shrewd punters at the courses and tracks would snap up any value they could sniff out which meant it was vital for the bookies’ survival that they kept their prices in line with the competition. If a horse entered the paddock in fine fettle punters would want to back it and so the price would come in. Any bookie who was slow in updating their prices risked being taken to the cleaners.

Tic-tacs would be employed by bookies to stand on boxes and communicate any changes in price or big bets via body movements. Examples include:

  • Touching the top of the head with both hands which meant odds of 9/4
  • Crossing both hands across the chest to indicate 33/1 or “double carpet” as it was known
  • Pointing both forefingers in the air and then moving the hands in opposition to indicate evens
  • Making a fist with both hands and extending the index finger of the right hand so it looks like a 10 indicating 10/1

Although tic-tac was very common at British race tracks before the turn of the century, many punters did not understand it so not only could the bookies communicate clearly, they could largely do so without punters getting a whiff of what was going on.

How Does Tic-Tac Work?

As well as odds, tic-tacs also had signs for different bookmakers – a hand movement in the shape of a hill was used for William Hill for example. The smaller bookmakers could then be made aware if one of their bigger competitors took a big bet and adjust their prices accordingly.

As well as the body movements and hand signals there was a spoken element to tic-tac which included many terms that are still used today. Take monetary values – many people still talk of £25 being a pony, £100 being a ton or a monkey equalling £500. Some terms changed regionally and were akin to Cockney rhyming slang – Major Stevens equals evens.

The Demise of Tic-Tac?

With huge technological advances in terms of communication and the digitalisation of all betting companies the tic-tacs inevitably thinned out and the language has all-but died out. Even at the biggest meetings like Royal Ascot you’d be lucky to see two tic-tacs on the course and it is thought that there are only a handful of people fluent in tic-tac left, with mobile phones and the internet largely removing the need for this iconic “language”.

So next time you watch the horses on telly and you see the fine figure of John McCririck doing all manner of funky hand movements, you’ll know it’s not just a manifestation of his eccentricities, tic-tac has played a rich and important part in the history of betting.

Tic-Tac Glossary

  • Bag (of sand) – £1000
  • Beeswax – tax
  • Bottle – 2/1
  • Burlington Bertie – 100/30
  • Carpet – 3/1
  • Century – 100/1
  • Ching – 5/1
  • Cockle – 10/1
  • Double carpet – 33/1
  • Double net – 20/1
  • Double tops – 15/8
  • Ear’ole – 6/4
  • Elef – 11/1
  • Elef a vier – 11/4
  • Enin – 9/1
  • Exes – 6/1
  • Face – 5/2
  • Handful or hand – 5/1
  • Jolly – a favourite
  • Kite – a cheque
  • Knock – not pay up when owing
  • Levels (you devils) – evens
  • Macaroni – 25/1
  • Major Stevens – evens
  • Monkey – £500
  • Net – 10–1
  • Net and bice – 12/1
  • Net and ex – 16/1
  • Net and rouf −14/1
  • Neves or nevis – 7/1
  • Neves to rouf – 7/4
  • Pony – 25/1 or £25
  • Rock cake – a small bet
  • Roof or rouf – 4/1
  • Sais a wang – 6/5
  • Scruffy and dirty – 100/30
  • Shoulder – 7/4
  • Shoulders or On the shoulders – 9/2
  • Straight up – evens
  • TH – 8/1
  • Tips – 11/10
  • Ton – £100
  • Top of the head – 9/4
  • Up the arm – 11/8
  • Wrist – 5/4
  • Xis – 6/1