Tic-tac (also tick-tack and non-hyphenated variants) is a traditional method of sign language used by bookmakers to communicate the odds of certain horses. It is still used in on-course betting in the UK. A tic-tac man will usually wear bright white gloves to allow their hand movements to be easily seen.
A few simple examples of signals:
- Odds of 9/4 (“top of the head”) – both hands touching the top of the head.
- Odds of 10/1 (“cockle” or “net”) – fists together with the right-hand thumb protruding upwards, to resemble the number 10.
- Odds of 33/1 (“double carpet”) – arms crossed, hands flat against the chest.
Within the UK there are some regional variations in the signals, for example in the south odds of 6/4 are represented by the hand touching the opposite ear, giving the slang term “ear’ole”, whereas the same odds are indicated in the north by the hand touching the opposite elbow (“half arm”).
Some of the signals may be called out verbally too. These names have evolved over time in a mixture of Cockney rhyming slang and backslang. For example, 4-1 is known as rouf (four backwards).
Essentially, the bookies use tic-tac as a way of communicating between their staff and ensuring their odds are not vastly different from their competitors, an advantage the punters could otherwise exploit. In particular, if a very large bet is placed with one bookmaker, this may be signalled to the others as a way of lowering the price on all the boards.
British racing pundit John McCririck uses tic-tac as part of his pieces to camera when explaining the odds of the horses for the next race.
The language is used less frequently than before, due in part to the use of radio communication by betting companies.
- The Observer: How to… be a tic-tac man
- BBC Online guide to tic-tac