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

Later, televison introduced Cockney rhyming slang to a far wider audience, thanks to an appetite for London police detective series and shows based on the fictional lives of amiable Cockney villains.

The Sweeney, a 1970s TV series about hard-drinking detectives from London's Flying Squad, even took its title from the Cockney name given to this special police division ("Sweeney" for "Sweeney Todd," meaning "Flying Squad").

Similarly, the TV series Minder and Only Fools and Horses helped to popularize Cockney rhyming slang throughout the country.

Richard Oliver, 35, is a university-educated newspaper sub-editor born in northeast England. He says Minder, which centered around dubious business dealings of Cockney "entrepreneur" Arthur Daley, inspired Oliver to broaden his own vocabulary.

"At first it was like trying to interpret a foreign language," Oliver said. "Part of the fun was working it all out."

Oliver gives a demonstration while in conversation with colleagues at his local London pub. "Use your minces," he says, gesturing towards an unsuspecting drinker. "That's a syrup if ever I saw one." "Minces," he says, are eyes, rhyming with mince pies, while a "syrup" is a wig—from syrup of figs.

He says he even works Cockney terms into headlines he writes at work. One recent story—about Titanic film star Kate Winslet's admission she has surprisingly big feet—inspired the headline: "Kate's Size 10 Plates." Oliver explained: "These days most Londoners know that plates, as in plates of meat, mean feet."

Born-and-bred Londoner Terry Godfrey, 58, says as a youngster he never heard such phrases uttered outside the East End. He believes their usage started to spread as people became more mobile and Cockneys mixed regularly with other Londoners.

Godfrey, a hotel carpenter, is largely unimpressed with the rash of new rhyming slang that has proliferated in recent years.

"Corned Beef"

"These days people just make them up as they go along," Godfrey said. "The other day this bloke came up to me at work and asked, 'Where's the corned beef?' 'You what?' I said. 'You know, the corned beef—chief.' I've never heard the boss called that before."

Godfrey says gangs of teenagers are often responsible for inventing such expressions. "It's a bit of an 'in' thing," he added. "It gives them a sense of belonging, and they like to get outsiders guessing as to what they're talking about."

Ayto, the rhyming-slang lexicographer, isn't surprised by such changes, saying, "Rhyming slang is a pretty accurate barometer of people's preoccupations and a reflection of society in general."

For instance, he highlights emergence of new, drug-related rhymes in recent decades, such as "oats and barley" for "charlie" (cocaine), "Uncle Mac" for "smack" (heroin), and "Johnny Cash" for "hash" (hashish).

Now that it's become part of mainstream culture, Cockney rhyming slang is being used in an ingenious way to promote an institution on the wane in Britain—the church.

The Bible in Cockney and More Bible in Cockney are aimed at re-engaging youngsters with the Anglican faith. Both are written by Mike Coles, head of religious education at Sir John Cass' Church of England Secondary School in Stepney, east London.

"He translated some of the Bible stories and rewrote them in a rhyming-slang fashion, originally for religious education lessons for teenagers," explained Sue Fulford. Fulford is a spokesperson for Coles' publishers, the Oxford-based Bible Reading Fellowship.

"Mike works in the East End and is fascinated by the area's dialect," she added. "The books are popular with children, because they get past the archaic language that might turn them off, especially now that Cockney rhyming slang has slipped into everyday English."

The books include stories from the Gospels and Old Testament. In Genesis, for instance, God says to Noah: "I want you to build a big nanny." ("Nanny, nanny goat"—"boat").

In 1933 Animal Farm author George Orwell pronounced Cockney rhyming slang "almost extinct."

John Ayto says: "Quite the reverse has happened. At the beginning of the 21st century, new rhyming slang is still being created."

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