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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cockney Rhyming Slang

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Cockney Rhyming Slang

Meaning

A type of slang in which a words are replaced by a words or phrases they rhyme with.

Origin

Rhyming slang has the effect of obscuring the meaning of what is said from outsiders. It isn't clear whether this is intentional, to hide one's meaning from the law, or to exclude outsiders, or whether it is just a form of group bonding. The way rhyming slang works does tend to exclude those not 'in the know', as the substitution of one word for another often relies on reference to a key phrase, which, for the slang to be understood, must be known jointly by those communicating; for example, to get from 'Hamsteads' to 'teeth', one must be aware of Hampstead Heath.

There's no reason to suppose that there was any great conspiracy in the formation of rhyming slang. English speakers, in common with speakers of other languages, enjoy rhyming. Evidence of this are the numerous double-word forms (reduplications), created from nonsense words and coined for no better reason than for the hell of it; for example, 'hoity-toity', higgledy-piggledy', 'namby-pamby', 'nitty-gritty', 'itsy-bitsy', etc, etc.

Rhyming slang is an exuberant linguistic form and tends to flourish in confident, outgoing communities. That's certainly true of Victorian England, which is where it originated. The earliest example of rhyming slang that we can find is in the English writer Edward Jerringham Wakefield's, Adventures in New Zealand, 1845, in which he includes an account of the journey from the UK to the Southern Hemisphere:

"The profound contempt which the whaler expresses for the 'lubber of a jimmy-grant', as he calls the emigrant."

Who Jimmy Grant was isn't clear.

The first to record rhyming slang in any systematic way were Ducange Anglicus, in The Vulgar Tongue. A Glossary of Slang, Cant, and Flash Phrases, used in London from 1839 to 1859 and John Camden Hotten, in A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, 1859:

Anglicus includes these examples, all dated 1857:

Apple and Pears, stairs.
Barnet-Fair, hair.
Bird-lime, time.
Lath-and-plaster, master.
Oats and chaff, footpath.

Hotten's book includes:

Bull and cow, a row.
Chevy Chase, the face.

There may have been many examples for dictionary makers to record by the 1850s but, like most slang, these were street level terms and not in general usage. Charles Dickens wrote an article on slang in 'Household Words' in 1853 and made no reference to rhyming slang.

Hotten was the first to apply the name 'rhyming slang' to the form, in his 1859 dictionary:

"The cant, which has nothing to do with that spoken by the costermongers, is known in Seven Dials and elsewhere as the Rhyming Slang, or the substitution of words and sentences which rhyme with other words intended to be kept secret. I learn that the rhyming slang was introduced about twelve or fifteen years ago."

The slang form wasn't known in the USA until late in the 19th century. Here's an item from the Lima Times Democrat, Sept 1894, which is the earliest reference I can find from America. It's in an editorial piece titled 'The Slang of London', which describes rhyming slang at length and is clearly intended for an audience who are new to it:

"Rhyming slang is peculiar to England and, I believe, to London."

st mary le bowSo far, we haven't mentioned 'Cockney', nor you might notice do any of the early citations above. That's because, although rhyming slang was associated with London, and particularly with London street traders, there never has been anything specifically Cockney about it. Rhyming slang didn't become Cockney Rhyming Slang until long after many of its examples had travelled world-wide. Cockney, according to the strict definition, refers to those born within the sound of Bow Bells. Cockney Rhyming Slang is just shorthand for London or English rhyming slang. As a name, 'Cockney Rhyming Slang' is 20th century, as are the majority of examples of CRS terms.

Just as an aside, here's some alternative versions of the supposed derivation of the name Cockney, as given in the 1811 'Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue', Author: Captain Grose et al. Believe of much of this as you see fit:

Cockney:

A nick name given to the citizens of London, or persons born within the sound of Bow bell, derived from the following story: A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called NEIGHING, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to shew he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the COCK NEIGHS?

The king of the cockneys is mentioned among the regulations for the sports and shows formerly held in the Middle Temple on Childermas Day, where he had his officers, a marshal, constable, butler, &c. See DUGDALE'S ORIGINES JURIDICIALES, p. 247.

Ray says, the interpretation of the word Cockney, is, a young person coaxed or conquered, made wanton; or a nestle cock, delicately bred and brought up, so as, when arrived a man's estate, to be unable to bear the least hardship. Whatever may be the origin of this appellation, we learn from the following verses, attributed to Hugh Bigot, Earl of Norfolk, that it was in use. in the time of king Henry II.

Was I in my castle at Bungay,
Fast by the river Waveney,
I would not care for the king of Cockney;

that is, the king of London.

Rhyming slang has spread to many English-speaking countries, especially those that had strong maritime links with the UK in the 19th century, notably Australia, Ireland and Canada/USA. There's even less justification for the name these days than there was when it was coined. Many examples of CRS clearly originate in other countries, although England, and specifically London, is still the major source. The spread can be shown by phrases that relate to people or places only well-known in a particular country, or ones where the rhyme depends on a regional or national accent; for example:

Australia:

Reg Grundies = Undies (Grundy is an Australian businessman)
Steak and kidney = Sydney

Ireland:

Flowers and frolics = bollocks (nonsense) or, with an Irish accent, bollicks.

Scotland:

Corned (beef) = deaf or, in Scotland, deif.

USA:

Eighty-six = nothing (nix).

Lest we forget London, there are several examples that rely on vowel pronunciation or place names of south-east England. E.g.:

Khyber pass = arse (elsewhere in England this would rhyme with ass)
Hamsteads = Hampstead Heath = teeth
Hampton = Hampton Wick = dick/prick

Rhyming slang is highly volatile; terms emerge quickly and many don't catch on. That's especially true recently with the rise of media/celebrity culture and the Internet. There are many lists of CRS terms. Here's a short list of those that are fairly well-established and likely to remain in the language.

Many of the early rhymes listed in Hotten and Anglicus have now gone out of use; for example, 'Billy Button - mutton' and Mailstone jailor - tailor'. Those early examples that are still known are indicated below.

Apples and pears   Stairs In use by 1857.
Ayrton

Ayrton Senna

Tenner (10 pound note)

 
Barnet

Barnet Fair

Hair

In use by 1857.
Berk

Berkeley Hunt

Cunt

In use by 1937. Also the origin or 'berk'.
Boat

Boat Race

Face

 
Borassic

Borassic lint

Skint

 
Brahms

Brahms and Liszt

Pissed (drunk)

 
Bread

Bread and Honey

Money

 
Bristols

Bristol Cities

Titties (breasts)

 
Brown Bread

 

Dead

 
Bull and Cow

 

Row (argument)

In use by 1859 (Hotten).
(Have a) butcher's

Butcher's Hook

Look

 
(My old) China

China Plate

Mate

 
Cobbler's

Cobbler's Awls

Balls (testicles)

 
Crackered (or creamed)

Cream Crackered

Knackered (tired)

 
Crust

Crust of Bread

Head

 
Current Bun

 

Sun (newspaper)

 
Daisy roots   Boots In use by 1859. Hotten explains this as a shortened form of 'Daisy recruits'.
Desmond

Desmond Tutu

2:2 (lower second class degree)

 
Dog and Bone

 

Phone

 
Donkey's

Donkey's Ears

Years

 
Elephant's

Elephant's Trunk

Drunk

In use by 1859 (Hotten).
Frog and toad   Road In use by 1859 (Hotten).
Ginger

Ginger Beer

Queer

 
Gregory

Gregory Peck

Neck

 
Hampsteads

Hampstead Heath

Teeth

Hotten records this as Hounslow Heath, but that's no longer used.
Hampton

Hampton Wick

Prick/dick (penis)

Also used, although less often than hampton, as 'wick'. The source of the phrase 'you get on my wick'.
J. Arthur

J. Arthur Rank

Wank (masturbate)

 
On your Jack (Jones)

Jack Jones

Alone

 
Khyber

Khyber Pass

Arse

 
Lardy La-di-da Cigar  
Loaf

Loaf of Bread

Head

 
Mincies Mince pies Eyes In use by 1859 (Hotten).
Mutton

Mutt and Jeff

Deaf

 
North and South

 

Mouth

 
Orson

Horse 'n cart

Fart

 
Oxford Scholar

 

Dollar

 
On your Pat

Pat Malone

Alone

 
Pen and Ink

 

Stink

In use by 1859 (Hotten).
It's all gone Pete Tong

 

Gone wrong

 
Plates

Plates of Meat

Feet

 
Taters

Potatoes in the mould

Cold

 
Rabbit

Rabbit and Pork

Talk

 
Raspberry

Raspberry Tart

Fart

 
Richard

Richard the Third

Turd (shit)

 
Rosie

Rosie Lee

Tea

Hotten records this as 'River Lea'.
Ruby

Ruby Murray

Curry

 
Scarper

Scapa Flow

Go

 
Sexton

Sexton Blake

Fake

 
Syrup

Syrup of Figs

Wig

 
Tea Leaf

 

Thief

 
Titfer

Tit for tat

Hat

 
On your tod

Tod Sloan

Alone

 
Trouble and Strife

 

Wife

 
Weasel

Weasel and Stoat

Coat