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Cockney Rhyming Slang - A Dying Tradition?

Updated on January 28, 2012
St.Mary le Bow, London in the 1800's
St.Mary le Bow, London in the 1800's

Cockney Rhyming Slang is a strange English Peculiarity, long associated specifically with the East End of the City of London, the name “Cockney” is traditionally somebody who is born within the sound of Bow Bells, The Bow Bells are located in St.Mary-Le-Bow Church, Cheapside, London. Cockney Rhyming is specifically a group of phrases that replace certain words with a rhyming equivalent.

Rhyming slang is understood to have developed in the early to mid 1800’s and some of the phrases below have been recorded from that time (John Camden Hotton published a number if the examples below in his Dictionary of Modern Slang in the mid 1800’s) It’s exact origins are unknown but there has been speculation it was developed possibly by street traders, the criminal fraternity or even Irish Navvies building the streets of the City at that time, certainly it was evolved amongst the poorer social classes of the time. It has never really been established as to whether the slang evolved as a means of “code” to deliberately exclude understanding of conversations to those outside of the social group or whether it evolved from good humoured banter

My Great Grandmother was a true Cockney, somebody who is born within sound of Bow Bells, although the family later moved “Up North” to Tottenham, Middlesex. My Grandfather loved Cockney Rhyming slang and I clearly recall as a young child hearing it spoken almost daily, I'm guessing he would have picked up a lot of it whilst serving in a London Regiment in the Second World War and even today, my Mother still uses the odd one occasionally!

The following list is by no means concise and are considered “Traditional” Rhyming Slang phrases, the first being the phrase, second the translation and third, where included, an example of it’s use. Some of the phrases, in the written form may not appear to rhyme, however the pronunciation of certain words are quite specific to the geographic location in London, for example – Old Joanna – would be the phrase for Piano, which locally would be pronounced roughly as “Piannar”, also “H’s” were widely considered obsolete, so Trousers would translate as “Round the Ouses”

Adam and Eve – Believe (as in “Would you Adam N’ Eve it!)

Apples and Pears – Stairs

Barnet Fair - Hair

Bird Lime – Time (hence the phrase – “Doing Bird” – Time in prison)

Boat Race – Face

Bread and Honey – Money

Butchers Hook - Look

Current Bun - Son

ChinaPlate – Mate (As in “Alright me old china?)

Daisy Roots – Boots

Dog and Bone - Phone

Donkeys Ears - Years

Frog and Toad – Road

Jam Jar - Car

Loaf of Bread – Head

Mince Pies - Eyes

Mutt N’Jeff – Deaf

Old Joanna – Piano

Pen and Ink - Stink

Pimple and Blotch – Scotch

Plates of Meat - Feet

Rabbit and Pork – Talk (As in “She don’t half rabbit on”, also “Rabbit” was a famous song from 80’s Cockney singing duo Chas N’ Dave”)

Round the houses – Trousers (Pronounced Round the Ouses)

Rub A dub – Pub

Syrup of fig- Wig (A more modern version is an Irish Jig!)

Tea Leaf – Thief

Tit for Tat – Hat (usually pronounced just Titfer)

Tommy Tucker - Supper

Trouble and Strife - Wife

Whistle and Flute – Suit

Rhyming Slang has also been a slightly more polite and humorous way of saying vulgar or rude words in company, therefore the following phrases have been in common use, almost certainly since the early twentieth century. Some have assumed a fairly innocuous meaning by today’s standards, often being heard and introduced to a wider audience through Television, although I’m sure the strict British TV Censors of the 60’s and 70’s probably never realised their full meaning! For decency purposes, I have not included the literal translations!

Bristol’s (Bristol Cities) – Breasts

Berk (from Berkeley Hunt!) – undesirable acquaintance

Brahams and List – Drunk

Khyber Pass– Backside

Cobblers Awls – Testicles (as in – “You’re talking cobblers”)

Richard the Third – Poo (or often – Pony and Trap)

As with many regional dialects, It is unclear whether Rhyming slang will continue to flourish into the Twenty First Century? While it’s use continues to evolve, many newer phrases have been added (and dropped!) to the phrase store over the years up until very recently, but increasingly famous people’s names are used, for example; Ruby Murray – Curry, Emma Freud’s – Haemorrhoids, Alan Whickers – Knickers, all of which have pretty much entered the mainstream and would be widely understoodd by many throughout Britain or the World. The phrases sometimes appear on Television (Del Boy and all in Only Fools and Horses) and in the Movies – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, along with a few other a Guy Ritchie movies have often included a number of references, both old and new.

With the increase of text speak and the digitised age, along with the older generations disappearing, It would be a great shame to see an age old tradition disappear, although the older traditional phrases above may one day become almost extinct and replaced with newer, more relevant versions. There aren't many resources on the Web for this subject but http://www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk/ has an online resource of submitted words and phrases, probably pushing more now to the modern phrases rather than the traditional, although the site does give a status indicator as to whether the word is Classic, Modern or Mockney (just made up!) and the site even includes an excellent “Cockney Translator” utility, which translates your text into “Cockney” Speak! There are also a number of books available that have been published on the subject, including an Oxford English Dictionary!

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