Cockney rhyming slang
Cockney rhyming slang refers to the slang words and and rhyming slang expressions developed in London, possibly in the 17th & 18th centuries (by 1860, John Camden Hotten's A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words refers to the costermongers of London's East End "use of a peculiar slang language").
While not a priority language item for most EFL students - or teachers - those planning to spend time in or around London will inevitably come up against these binomial expressions at some stage. On a light-hearted note, there are five ATMs in the East End which have Cockney rhyming slang as a "language" option. For classroom work, they may be useful for linking exercises and, of course, rhyming. Rhyming slang works by replacing the word to be obscured, for instance "look", as in "Let's have a look", with the first word of a phrase that rhymes with that word. Thus, "look" would be replaced by "butcher's," because "look" rhymes with "butcher's hook": "Let's have a butcher's".
Arguably the most famous, Cockney rhyming slang is by no means the only rhyming slang. On the other hand, it should not be confused with Cockney itself, that is, the working-class speech of London.
True Cockneys are said to have been born within the sound of "Bow Bells", a reference to the Church of St Mary-le-Bow.
While there is some speculation as to the truth of it having been developed intentionally to assist criminals (the most popular explanation), it's clear that by making the meaning of sentences obscure to those who did not understand the slang, the phenomenon was put to good effect by people of a certain community, or those "in the know".
While many native English speakers are unaware of it, several cockney expressions have passed into common language. On the other hand, the creation of new ones is no longer restricted to Cockneys.
- Brahms = drunk (from "Brahms and Liszt" = pissed)
- bread = money (from "bread and honey")
- China = mate (from "china plate")
- cobblers = rubbish (from "cobblers' awls" = balls, i.e. testicles, as in "You're talking a load of cobblers")
- jam jar = car
- loaf = head (from "loaf of bread"), e.g. "Use your loaf!"
- Bristols = women's breasts (Bristol Cities = titties) cf thruppenny bits = tits
- A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words by John Camden Hotten (Full title: A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words used at the present day in the streets of London, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the houses of Parliament, the dens of St. Giles, and the palaces of St. James: preceded by a history of cant and vulgar language: with glossaries of two secret languages, spoken by the wandering tribes of London, the costermongers, and the patterers (Second edition, 1860)
- "ATM Cash Machine Uses Cockney Accent To Deliver Money" The Huffington Post
- "Cockney rhyming at cash machines" BBC
- Official website. St Mary-le-Bow Church This itself may be a typical Cockney joke, given that the bells didn't actually ring for long periods of time, including the period 1666-1677, when the Great Fire of London destroyed the church until Wren's new church was completed, and from 1941, when a German air raid destroyed the bells until they were recast in 1956.
- Eric Partridge
- Estuary English
- Non-standard English
- Taboo word