The Giro

Put the word “Giro” into any well known search engine and you’re likely to pull up results for the Giro d’Italia. The Giro is the annual bicycle race held primarily in Italy with little dips into neighbouring countries.

The word in the UK has different and specific connotations. It refers to an electronic payment system that allows a person to make a direct payment from one bank account to another. The word stems from the Italian “giro” which means “circulation”. The things going round this time, though, are not wheels but money.

In October 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson officially opened Girobank as “the people’s bank”, or the National Giro as it was first known. Girobank provided free banking and credit transfer and the Post Office operated it. Girobank was part of a Labour Government initiative to provide banking facilities for the “unbanked” — people who did not have bank accounts.

There were quite a few of those. Not everyone could afford a bank account. In the 1960s, if you had a bank account, you paid for it. Plus, you could only get an account with a bank if you were vouched for by other customers.

Those who were particularly likely not to have bank accounts were people on Government benefits. These days, we use electronic transfers for payments. Back then, the fortnightly “Giro” was the normal way of distributing benefit money. You got your Giro — technically your Girocheque — which you could exchange at your local Post Office for cash.

This led to the birth of the queues of pensioners and the unemployed in Post Offices cashing their Giros. The term Giro gradually became associated with the poor, the downtrodden, and the dependent. Not a great look for a bank.

So what did Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government do in 1989? Privatised it. Sold Girobank to the Alliance & Leicester Building Society. In 2003, the Girobank brand disappeared after 35 years.

In May 2010, Grupo Santander acquired Alliance & Leicester, so that name has gone, too.

The plucky little giro lives on in the printed instruction to a bank which tells the bank to pay some money into a specific account. You most often find the words “bank giro credit” on the tear-off strips on your telephone, water, and other bills. The words are accompanied by the “money mark logo” for no reason I can discern. The payslip also needs to be accompanied by the requisite amount of cash or a cheque, of course.


The mysterious money mark logo

Yet the Giro as a symbol of the 1980s era of mass unemployment, where people waited from one dystopian fortnight to another for their cash to arrive and survive, is fading. Works such as the film Waiting for Giro and James Kelman’s collection of short stories Not Not While the Giro become just that little bit more incomprehensible.

Let’s smother a parrot. Language always moves on.


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