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London's Cockney Rhyming Slang

Updated on January 21, 2016

London - Big Ben and the London Eye.

Cockney Rhyming Slang - A Secret Language.

If you have ever been a visitor to London or you have watched films or TV programmes set in London, you may have heard people using Cockney Rhyming Slang. Chances are, that if you are from outside the UK, you may not have understood what was being said. That is because Cockney Rhyming Slang was invented as a secret language!

The picture above is of Big Ben and the London Eye. The East End is to the left of the picture as you look at it. Anywhere East of the Tower of London is the East End, so if you have been to the Tower, you have rubbed shoulders with Cockneys.

A 'Cockney' is somebody who was born in the East End of London. Specifically they had to be born around the area of Bow, a borough of London. To be a true Cockney, one has to have been born 'within the sound of Bow bells'. That is to say that if you could hear the sound of the bells in Bow's church, then you are a Cockney.

Let me take you back to the late 1800s in the East End of London. In those days, the East End was a dark, lower-class area with a large criminal fraternity. This is the same area where the famous 'Jack the Ripper' operated. The East End was home to the docks. Valuable and exotic goods were being imported from all over the British Empire and beyond and this provided rich pickings for the small time crooks of the area. These small time crooks would be constantly planning and scheming their next 'job' but because of the reputation of the area, there was always a high police presence in the locality. The crooks decided that they needed a secret language all of their own so that outsiders and more especially the police, would not understand what was being said. This secret language was Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Cockney Rhyming Slang uses everyday phrases that rhyme with what is actually meant. An example would be:

'Apples and Pears' - this is a seemingly straight forward phrase that wouldn't arouse suspicion if overheard. The meaning of that phrase is quite different however. In Rhyming Slang, one disregards the first word (in this case 'apples') and it is the second word ('pears') that is used to rhyme with the true meaning, in this case 'stairs'. So 'apples and pears' means 'stairs'.

So you may have heard a thief in those days say something like,

"I'm going down the frog and toad to half-inch some bread and honey from the trouble and strife".

Meaning,

"I'm going down the road to pinch (steal) some money from my wife".

This language was unintelligible to people outside the local fraternity, especially to the police, so they could discuss their dirty dealings with impunity.

This language became so common-place in the East End of London, that over time, it began to be used by everybody. As it became the common language, rhyming slang itself got shortened so that often, only one of the two words was used. Rhyming slang for 'hat' is ''Tit-for-tat". This became shortened in common parlance to 'Titfer'. Anybody today in the East End would know that a 'titfer' is a hat. Since the arrival of TV and radio, most people in the UK would be familiar with Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Although Cockney Rhyming Slang was developed over a hundred and twenty years ago, it is still in common use today and new words are being added all the time to keep pace with modern developments. So today a 'jam jar' is a car, a 'dog and bone' is a phone, neither of which would have existed 120 years ago. As more developments occur, more words are added. If you have ever heard any seemingly meaningless expressions in an English film or TV programme, it may well be Rhyming Slang.

If you are a fan of UK films or if you are thinking of visiting London on vacation, here are a few of the more common phrases you may hear:

'Baked Bean' - Queen.

'Butcher's Hook' (shortened to 'Butchers') - Look.

'Lady Godiva' - Fiver (Five pounds).

'Rub-a-dub' - Pub.

'Rosie Lee' - Tea.

'Tom and Dick' - Sick.

There are thousands of expressions in Cockney Rhyming Slang and I can't list them all here. Suffice it to say that if you hear some of these expressions while in London, you are listening to a throw back to 1880s London, an era of Jack the Ripper, Mary Poppins and skullduggery! And by the way, if you are in London and you need a personal guide, I am available to show you all the sights. You can contact me at www.viator.com


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