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Victorian Rhyming Slang

Updated on February 18, 2015

What is Rhyming Slang?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines rhyming slang as

slang in which the word intended is replaced by a word or phrase that rhymes with it (as loaf of bread for head) or the first part of the phrase (as loaf for head)

it also states that the

First Known Use of RHYMING SLANG

1859

Charles Dickens portrayed the pickpockets of London in his novel Oliver Twist

Engraving by Gerorge Cruikshank depcting Fagans, Oliver and a group of pickpockets.
Engraving by Gerorge Cruikshank depcting Fagans, Oliver and a group of pickpockets. | Source

London Peeler/bBobbie 1850s

London Peeler/ police officers in the 1850's
London Peeler/ police officers in the 1850's | Source

The Victorian era is often accredited with the birth of rhyming slang but many historians and linguists believe it originates a lot earlier. The author of several books on language, Susie Dent states that it began in the criminal underworld of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

What is certain is that it was widely used in some parts of Victorian lower class life. The origin of this use is linked by some to the introduction of Peelers in London in 1829. Prior to 1829 there was no professional, organized police force in London. The thought is that individuals communicated in rhyming slang to avoid detection by the Peelers and to communicate information to each other in a sort of code. However some historians think this does not seem likely because the men employed as Peelers would have been from the same areas of London as those trying to avoid them and their references would have been familiar to both sides. Other theories include that it simply developed through speakers enjoyment of the rhyming sound of words, as a way to develop a sense of community and a way to exclude outsiders.

Seven Dials around 1836

George Cruikshank - for Charles Dickens Seven Dials around 1836
George Cruikshank - for Charles Dickens Seven Dials around 1836 | Source

Where was Victorian Rhyming Slang Used?

The book A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Can't and Vulgar Words written by Jon Camden Hotten in 1859 states that the use of rhyming slang began with street traders called Patterers and Chaunters. They were based in an area called Seven Dials, a junction in Covent Garden in the West End of London were seven streets join. This was a slum area known for poor living conditions and numerous gin shops.

The social researcher Henry Mayhew includes interviews with patterers in his book London Labour and the London Poor. He described them as 'street sellers of stationary, literature and fine arts.' To patter is in fact a slang term for talk. These hawkers used banter to sell their goods, sometimes working in groups so than no one failed to hear their patter. Before the printing of newspapers on a large scale Chaunters would sell penny broadsheet and ballads. These sellers would hawk sheets of news stories - deaths, accidents, hangings, 'selling' the news with their spiel and rhyme.

Horrible Histories portrayal of Victorian Criminals use of Rhyming Slang

How did Rhyming Slang Work?

Rhyming slang involves taking a common word and replacing it with a rhyming phrase of two or three words. Then the actual word that rhymes is omitted. A good example of this is the word telephone. Telephone rhymes with 'dog and bone'. The rhyming word bone is them omitted to make the word for telephone - dog. Most of the words changed are nouns.

Often the words used in the rhyming pattern are unique to the locality or current events so are difficult to decipher by outsiders. A good example of this is the the word Scooby. In modern rhyming slang Scooby is the words used for clue. ' I haven't got a Scooby Doo (clue). This is a reference to a carton character well known in today's society. This is also true of dialect and pronunciation. The way a word is said will affect what it rhymes with.

Examples of Victorian Ryming Slang

Word
Rhyming phrase
Slang word
Hair
barnet Fair
Barnet
Look
Butchers hook
Butchers
Money
Bread and honey
Bread
Drunk
Elephants trunk
Elephants
Eyes
Mince pies
Mincies
Talk
Rabbit and pork
Rabbit
Coat
Weasel and stoat
Weasel

Rhyming Slang Today

Rhyming slang is still in use today and is continually evolving. New words are introduced and old ones disappear as the rhyming references are no longer relevant. In addition to those who use rhyming slang in their regular everyday dialogue, some words have been part of common usage all over the country. Phrases such as 'use your loaf' to say use or head or brain, 'have a barney' to have a fight or argument and 'have a butchers' for have a look, are used regularly by non slang speakers. Although still based in London, through the exposure of radio, TV and movies the majority of people in the UK can understand.

What is Cockney Rhyming Slang?

The description Cockney Rhyming slang was not used until much later in The development of the dialogue. Cockney traditionally refers to anyone born within the sound of the Bow bells - the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the east of London. Today it is generally used to refer to working class people living in the East End of London. It is not clear when the description Cockney was added, but is generally thought to be a 20th century description of English rhyming slang.

So whether rhyming slang originated in the Victorian period or not, it is clear it was thriving in London at this time. A language that is continually evolving, it has survived and continues to be used in today.

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  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

    Hi again Ruthbro, sometimes we use the whole phrase other time we leave off the rhyming word and just say "butcher's.." for example. If it is a well known saying. There are also some much cruder ones, but not meant for the tender ears of HP. :)

  • Ruthbro profile image
    Author

    Ruthbro 2 years ago from USA

    Thank you, interesting to hear about German slang!

  • profile image

    Ghaelach 2 years ago

    Morning Ruthbro.

    Great little hub and brought back some memories of when I was back home in the northof England. The only slang I get these days is "Kölsch." That's the language for the German city of Cologne or Köln in German, which you might say is on a parr with Cockney slang. One of those slang languages that you have to be born in and grow up in. But it's a nice slang just like cockney, well at least for me it is. One of my favorite slang words is "Apples and Pears" = stairs.

    Ghaelach

  • Ruthbro profile image
    Author

    Ruthbro 2 years ago from USA

    Thank you,

    I love the way language travels . That's interesting that some of those phrases are still being used. I had not heard of cheese and kisses. I am interested do you use the whole phrase or omit the rhyming word? I grew up with 'let me have a butchers at that . . . ' hook was left out.

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

    This is an interesting hub Ruthbro. Rhyming slang is a very interesting topic. Australians in fact still use it extensively and I'm sure a lot of it came over with the convict settlers. We say thing like "steak an kidney" for Sydney, "cheese and kisses" for missus/wife, or "trouble and strife"=wife, "billy lids" for kids, "frog an toad" for road, "butcher's hook"= look etc. Voted up.

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