Grooming words

Child abusers are using a whole new language online, says Sue Leschen, who considers the difficulties for interpreters

Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) cases have created a sharp new learning curve for many language professionals working in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) as transcribers, translators and interpreters. In order to work effectively in this area together with other professionals, we have had to learn several new ‘languages’.

Some of these new ‘languages’ come in the shape of emojis, which are commonly used by sexual predators as a sort of shorthand in the texts and WhatsApp messages they send to the children and young people they are communicating with. At first sight these emojis may appear to be harmless, but within the context of sexual exploitation they can have much more sinister meanings. An emoji of a hand may denote ‘masturbation’, a camera is often a predator’s request for the child to send nude photos, and a devil emoji might indicate that the predator is feeling ‘horny’.

Each set of communications is unique to that encounter and each emoji has to be understood in that context. ‘Horny’ emojis may pose translation headaches, as such words can be difficult to convey in the other language. Register is all important here, and rather than equivalents such as ‘aroused’, we look for less formal terms – excité in French, for example.

Many predators also use abbreviations. ‘LMIR’ means ‘let’s meet in real life’ and is usually sent following an online grooming process designed to get the child or young person to trust the predator. Part of this process often involves admiring the victim’s body online, with ever-increasing requests for explicit videos that culminate in the abbreviation ‘NIFOC’ – a request that the child should be ‘naked in front of the camera’.

A message from the victim containing ‘PIR’ warns the predator that there is a ‘parent in the room’, indicating that it is not a good time to talk or broadcast from a phone or webcam. Obviously, ‘PIR’ doesn’t apply where the abuser is a parent, close relative or family friend, as is sometimes the case. Another abbreviation, which leaves no doubt as to the predator’s true intentions, is ‘CU46’, meaning ‘see you for sex’.

Of course, text speak doesn’t always transfer easily from one language to another. In French we have ASV, meaning Age, Sexe, Ville (‘Age, Sex, Town’) and tabitou (tu habites ou?/’where do you live?’) Paedophiles signing off with bizh for ‘kiss’ (rather than bise or bisous) are likely to live in, or at least have links with, Brittany (Breizh is Breton for ‘Brittany’).

New emojis and abbreviations are being developed constantly both by predators and by the children and young people they target. Predators will need to be as fluent in these new ‘languages’ as their victims, so they can interact with them online without raising suspicion, which is why many have online profiles that suggest they are a similar age to their targets.

Likewise, language professionals need to be au fait not only with these types of coded messages but also with IT terminology in this field, for example ‘live-streaming’ and ‘default settings’, as well as slang such as ‘subs’ (‘subscribers’). We need to comprehend relevant concepts such as grooming, which refers to the process whereby the perpetrator befriends a target with the aim of gaining their trust. Rather than doing CPD in chat rooms and on the dark net, which could cause additional trauma, we can obtain up-to-date information from publications produced by charities and others working in the field.

The language used by predators in their messages is rarely age-appropriate as far as the victim is concerned, and aims to desensitise the child to the proposed sexual exploitation. Over time, initial resistance from the victim, indicated by a response such as ‘yucky’, gives way, until the child is responding with messages containing smiley emojis. 

Interpreting abuse

Language professionals working in this growth area are increasingly being asked by agencies concerned with prosecuting predators and safeguarding children to transcribe, translate and interpret written and visual documents. These include transcriptions of phone and Skype calls, text messages spanning months, and references to graphic photos and videos found on social media.

Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Google+, YouTube, Viber and Tango are just a few of the social media channels used by those exploiting children. A recent investigation by The Times found that paedophiles were using YouTube as a shop window for CSE. The Internet Matters research group estimates more than a quarter of children aged 6-10 in the UK post live content to global audiences, often via free YouTube accounts.

Predators persuade children to strip off and/or adopt sexualised poses, taking advantage of a 2018 rule change that enables anyone with a YouTube account to livestream from a mobile phone. These videos are then shared on other fora and used to blackmail victims into carrying out more serious acts, with threats to tell their parents if they don’t comply. This has added to a huge increase in work in this field for language professionals.

Increasingly, agencies and charities who offer support and guidance to victims and/or their families produce their leaflets and other materials in languages other than English, so there is a lot of work for us here too. These include PACE (Parents Against CSE;, the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), Safer Internet, the telephone service Childline and Childnet International.

As language professionals, we also need to familiarise ourselves with the language children use when they are trying to describe what has happened to them to the various safeguarding authorities. Children rarely use the same language as adults to describe their body parts and may call their genitals ‘my twinkle’, ‘my piddle’ or, in French, zezette or zizi. Language professionals with small children are better placed to keep up-to-date with current language in this area, but there are lots of blogs specialising in vocabulary used by toddlers, children and teenagers (for example, In the context of obtaining a successful prosecution, accuracy in interpretation is vital.

Distressing work

This sort of work may not appeal to all language professionals as it is often deeply distressing, given the ages of the victims and the nature of the depravity involved. You need to be able to develop a mindset that can deal with the subject matter (and the victims, if you are in a face-to-face situation with them) in an objective, calm and professional manner. This is easier said than done and I would be lying if I said that some cases haven’t ‘got’ to me.

Many cases involve long-running and painstaking investigations, so exposure for the professionals involved – including interpreters, translators and transcribers – can be prolonged and intense. In terms of formal support, counselling and guidelines on professional behaviour and coping strategies, these are still unchartered waters for us. Unlike the police and social services personnel we work with, we have no in-house counselling services to turn to. 

What is clear is that this growth area for language professionals is not going away any time soon. Twitter has recently released figures showing that it took down some 487,363 accounts involving CSE between January and June last year. However, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg as predators resort to more and more sophisticated techniques to avoid detection.


Sue Leschen FCIL CL is a lawyer-linguist, a business mentor for freelance interpreters and the Director of Avocate, a niche-market legal and commercial French interpreting and translation company. She has a special interest in professional conduct.