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Cockney Rhyming Slang

As far as the Internet and slang dictionaries go, you probably won't find a more widely covered subject than Cockney rhyming slang. The following article I hope will dispel some of the enigma.

What exactly is Cockney rhyming slang?

Cockney rhyming slang at its most simplest uses a conjunction of words, whose last is used to suggest a rhyme, which is its definition. For example one of the most famous and one that is very rarely used in all seriousness is apples and pears, meaning stairs. Usually the rhyming slang is abbreviated to just the first word, so the above example would become apples. This in effect makes a sentence in which it is employed much harder to understand and when a sentence incorporates two or more elements of rhyming slang the meaning becomes so obscure that, to the uninitiated, confusion is the result, and there lies its original purpose, as a form of coded speech. Additionally confusing, the definition of some rhyming slang is itself slang, so creating a further barrier to understanding, for example, to half-inch, rhyming with pinch, and meaning to steal.

The most amusing and cleverest rhyming slang forms a connection with its subject matter and the with sense it imbues, often employing strong irony. Whether or not that irony was intended at the outset doesn't matter greatly, it just helps to entertain.

The origins of rhyming slang

This often bewildering form of slang, although now actually heard throughout the English speaking world, originally developed in an area of inner London now known as the East End. This area, Cockney London, was once defined as being that which was within the sound of Bow bells, the church bells belonging to the Church of St Mary Le Bow, in Cheapside.

The word Cockney itself, from an earlier spelling cokeney, literally means cock's egg, a small malformed egg that is occasionally laid by young hens. During the 1700's the term, used by country folk, was applied to town's folk who were considered ignorant of the established customs and country ways. This term in due course became synonymous with working class Londoners themselves and has now lost its once denigrating qualities. Despite the current definition of a Cockney, to most outsiders a Cockney is anyone from London itself.

Rhyming slang, just part of the Cockney vernacular, is believed to have come to prominence in the early to mid 1800's. It is frequently suggested that it began its life as the tongue of the London street trader, the costermongers, perhaps in an attempt to conceal their often illicit practices from the public or more importantly any illegal activities from the recently established police force, the Peelers. It may well have begun its evolution many years before then. Another area of speculation is how from being such a localised dialect it gained so much prominance; the suggestion here, is that Cockney rhyming slang was adopted by the underworld. It was the necessity of the police to learn this criminal language and by its subsequent publication in law enforcement manuals rhyming slang became widely known.

Current Rhyming Slang

Cockney rhyming slang is so prevalent in British English that many people unwittingly employ it in everyday speech. You will hear several established terms used in conversation throughout Britain:

  • "Let's have a butchers at that magazine" (butcher's hook = look)
  • "You're a berk!" (berkshire hunt = cunt )
  • "I haven't heard a dicky bird about it" (dickie bird = word)
  • "Use your loaf and think next time" (loaf of bread = head)
  • "Did you half-inch that car?" (half-inch = pinch, meaning steal)
  • "You will have to speak up, he's a bit mutton" (mutt'n'jeff = deaf)
  • "I'm going on my tod" (tod sloan = alone, or own)
  • "Are you telling porkies?" (porkies = pork pies = lies)
  • "Are you going to rabbit all night?" (rabbit and pork = talk)
  • "Scarper lads! The police are coming" (scarpa flow = go).

Most English speaking countries now employ their own rhyming slang expressions, Australia has been a particularly strong user since the mid 1900's. It should be emphasised that the most recently invented rhyming slang doesn't originate from Cockney's themselves, the name Cockney rhyming slang is now a loose term for the style of slang that uses the rhyming technique. Many true Cockney's have a strong pride in their own special vernacular and their resentment for much of the current batch of rhyming slang will be very evident, especially when it is given the name Cockney rhyming slang.

Since the 1980s there has been a resurgence in the popularity of rhyming slang, with numerous new examples popping up in everyday in speech. Some make a bold attempt to infiltrate language use at a national level, usually employed by eager and cocky (sic) adolescents and especially young male adults in an attempt to strengthen their identity. The popularity of 'new laddism', 'girl power' and youth culture in general in the 1990's, encouraged by the media as a profitable commodity, has led to a wealth of rhyming slang taking hold throughout the United Kingdom. Much of this new breed of rhyming slang will undoubtedley die as quickly as it appeared, although the broadening of accessible reference resources such as can be found on the Internet, like this dictionary, will help further its longevity. Modern rhyming slang often utilizes the names of the famous who will surely on their own demise from the limelight take their namesake slang with them. Having said that perhaps a few will survive as have:

  • Mutt'n'Jeff = deaf
  • Tod Sloan = (on ones) own. E.g. "He was on his tod when he heard the news about his mother."
  • Jack Jones = alone, on one's own. E.g. "I was sat my Jack Jones waiting for my mate when my phone rang."
  • Ruby Murray = curry.

A few topical examples focussing on the famous are:

  • Ayrton Senna = tenner (a monetary note)
  • Claire Rayner(s) = trainer(s) (the footwear)
  • Darren Gough = cough
  • Damon Hill = pill
  • David Gower = shower
  • Gary Ablett = tablet (ecstasy pill)
  • Gary Glitter = shitter (anus)
  • Gianluca Vialli = charlie (cocaine)
  • Jack Dee = pee
  • Janet Street-Porter = quarter (a weight of drugs)
  • Tony Blair(s) = flairs or hair
  • Winona Ryder = Cider

Here's a small selection of general, but older, currently used expressions:

  • April showers = flowers
  • barnet fair = hair
  • china plate = mate
  • currant bun = sun
  • deep sea diver = fiver (a monetary note)
  • hampstead heath = teeth
  • mince pies = eyes
  • pen and ink = stink
  • septic tank = yank (a person from the U.S.)
  • tea leaf = thief
  • whistle and flute = suit

As this dictionary only lists a small selection of rhyming slang it is suggested that you visit the links page to access a number of other websites dedicated to Cockney rhyming slang, and, of course, you will find a large range of examples amongst the listings of this dictionary.

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Slang Articles

A few essays on various slang and word topics, incl. rhyming slang, the full monty, Gordon Bennett and nadsat. Read more...

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