Origins of Cockney Rhyming Slang
This is a type of slang where words are replaced by a words or phrases with which they rhyme. Although rhyming slang was associated with London, and particularly with London street traders, there never has been anything especially Cockney about it as rhyming slang did not become Cockney Rhyming Slang until after it had been in widespread use for a long time. According to the definition, Cockney refers to those born within the sound of Bow Bells in London. The term Cockney Rhyming Slang is a twentieth-century innovation and just another term for London or English rhyming slang.
The effect of rhyming slang was to conceal the meaning of what is said from outsiders or from the law, whether intentional or not, or as the result of group bonding.
The first to record rhyming slang in any systematic way was Ducange Anglicus, in The Vulgar Tongue. A Glossary of Slang, Cant, and Flash Phrases, used in London from 1839 to 1859. Anglicus includes the following examples, all dated 1857:
apple and pears / stairs
Barnet Fair / hair
bird-lime / time
lath-and-plaster / master
oats and chaff / footpath.
John Camden Hotten also wrote A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words in 1859:
bull and cow / a row.
Chevy Chase / the face.
(Note: Not the American actor Chevy Chase but I suspect from The Hunting of the Cheviot, also called The Ancient Ballad of Chevy Chase).
Many of the early rhymes listed in Hotten and Anglicus have now passed out of use; for example, “Billy Button / mutton”. Early examples that are still known are listed below along with some more recent ones.
apples and pears / stairs
Barnet or Barnet Fair / hair
boat race / face
Brahms and Liszt / pissed (drunk)
bread and honey / money
Bristol Cities / titties (breasts)
brown bread / dead
(have a) butcher’s or butcher’s hook / look
crackered (or cream crackered) / knackered (or tired)
crust or crust of bread / head
daisy roots / boots
donkey’s ears / years
elephant’s trunk / drunk
frog and toad / road
Khyber or Khyber Pass / arse
lardy or La-di-da / cigar
loaf or loaf of bread / head
mincies or mince pies / eyes
mutton or mutt and jeff / deaf
north and south / mouth
Orson or horse ‘n cart / fart
Oxford scholar / dollar
pen and ink / stink
plates or plates of meat / feet
rabbit or rabbit and pork / talk
raspberry or raspberry tart / fart
Richard or Richard the Third / turd
Rosie or Rosie Lee / tea
scarper or Scapa Flow / go
Sexton or Sexton Blake /fake
syrup or syrup of figs / wig
tea leaf / thief
titfer or tit for tat / hat
on your tod or Tod Sloan / alone
trouble and strife / wife
weasel or weasel and stoat / coat
By the mid-twentieth century many rhyming slang expressions used the names of current personalities, especially actors and performers, for example:
Alans (for Alan Whicker) / knickers
Gregory Peck / neck or cheque
Henry Halls / balls (testicles)
J. Arthur or J. Arthur Rank / wank (masturbate)
Max Miller / pillow (when pronounced as “piller”)
Ruby Murray / curry.
Use of personal names as rhymes continued into the late 20th century, for example:
Britney Spears / beers
Desmond or Desmond Tutu / 2:2 (lower second-class degree)
on your Jack (Jones) or Jack Jones / alone
Tony Blairs / flares, as in trousers with a wide bottom (previously this was Lionel Blairs)
Use in popular culture
Rhyming slang is alive and well, and has been used in a number of movies and TV programmes, among them:
To Sir, with Love, 1967 movie starring Sidney Poitier
The Italian Job, 1969 movie starring Michael Caine
and more recent “gangster” type movies such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), The Limey (1999), Sexy Beast (2000), Snatch (2000) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001).
Not On Your Nellie, The Good Life, Mind Your Language, The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith, all of them 1970s/1980s UK TV sitcoms. Also in dramas such as The Sweeney.
More recently, in December 2004 Joe Pasquale, winner of the fourth series of UK ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, frequently uttered the term “Jacobs”, for Jacob’s Crackers, rhyming slang term for knackers, i.e. testicles.
Such is the interest in rhyming slang, besides books and articles having been written about it, student have written theses about the subject as part of linguistic studies, and not all of them have been written by native British students.
In Part 2 I will consider rhyming slang in an international context.
Stephen York is a freelance proofreader with over 25 years' experience in book and journal publishing offering proofreading services to publishers, businesses, organizations, educational institutions, academics, students, and authors. He regularly proofreads in digital format a wide variety of media in an extensive range of specialist subject areas, including business, finance, economics, education, marketing, and real estate.