Rhyming Slang: U.K.'s Poetry of the Proletariat Goes Pop

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
April 14, 2004

Now you have a choice when ordering beer in a London pub—ask for a pig if you want just one, or for some Britneys if buying several. The terms represent both old and new in the modern lexicon of Cockney rhyming slang.

Named after the Londoners who invented it, Cockney rhyming slang uses a group of words, the last of which rhymes with whatever's being referred to. So "pig's" gives you "pig's ear" which rhymes with beer, while "Britneys" means "beers," via Britney Spears. Usually only the first word is uttered as the rest is implied.

Originating in the inner-London area known as the East End, Cockneys are so called after a derogatory term once used to describe city folk—a "cokeney," or "cock's egg," was an egg that was small or misshapen. You were considered a Cockney if born within earshot of the bells of the Church of St. Mary le Bow in Cheapside.

The origins of the Cockneys' distinctive rhyming slang date back to the 15th century, though it's thought to have really taken hold in the 1800s, when street traders and criminals developed it as a means of covert communication to conceal illicit practices.

"It performed a useful function in bemusing outsiders and cementing group identity," added John Ayto, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang.

Since the first half of the 20th century—a period when it appeared to be in danger of dying out—Cockney rhyming slang has made a stunning comeback, spreading well beyond the East End.

For instance, in any central London tourist gift shop, Ayto says, you are likely to find, displayed next to the cash register, for the benefit of impulse buyers, a small phrase book of rhyming slang.

"It has become a commodity, to an extent unparalleled in any other area of language and usage," he added. "In the process it has become embalmed, but it has also been given new life.

"The favored current model is a rhyme based on the name of a fashionable or well-known personality. This has always been a popular strategy, but in the 1980s and 90s it swamped all others."

Besides "Britneys," there are people wearing "Tonys" ("Tony Blairs"—"flares"), or driving about in "Camillas" ("Camilla Parker Bowles"—"Rolls-Royce"), or slapping on the "Billy Ocean" ("suntan lotion").

Lexicographers suggest the slang's initial revival was linked to notorious criminal gangs that operated in the East End in the 1950s and 60s. Their brutal reputation encouraged underworld characters elsewhere to toughen up their image by adopting similar vernacular.

Wider Audience

Continued on Next Page >>


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