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Cockney rhyming slang history: the roots, the rhymes and the reasons

Ever fallen down the ‘apples and pears’? Have you had your ‘barnet’ chopped recently? Called a mate on the old ‘dog and bone’? Or, ‘aven’t you a scooby’ about what all of that means?

Sit back, grab a nice cuppa ‘Rosy Lee’, and all will be explained. 

These phrases belong to the vernacular of Cockney rhyming slang, a code-like way of speaking that originated in mid-19th century East London. You may remember your grandparents speaking it growing up, or perhaps you’ve heard a phrase or two being thrown about as you walk down Roman Road Market, hunting for a bargain.

Leanne, who works in G Kelly, said that hearing rhyming slang in the East End ‘isn’t as common these days’. ‘Pie and liquor is the Cockney rhyming slang for vicar’, she smilingly told us as she ladled the legendary parsley sauce.

Despite being less popular today, its old prevalence can still be heard, or seen, on our local streets. ‘BottleJob‘, the bottle shop and craft off-licence in Globe Town, takes its name from a Cockney rhyming slang expression used to mean ‘coward’, which owner Alex Dehayen recalls as his grandfather’s affectionate nickname for him. 

Due to its largely spoken nature, there are very few written records of its roots, but it was supposedly the language of stallholders and criminals. Thieves and vagabonds could use this type of ‘cryptolect’, a secretive language, to keep their liaisons well kept from eavesdropping authorities. A type of ‘in-the-know’ jargon, aiming to exclude or mislead anyone from outside of the Cockney bubble. 

A sense of pride and nostalgia transpired from our Facebook call out about Cockney rhyming slang memories, particularly from the children that can remember their parents and grandparents using it. Mary Demmel remembers her aunt Mag leaving her house to get the bus saying “let me get me ole grey mare out”, meaning ‘fare’. Carol Legg’s nan ‘used to talk of the Artful that lived up the road’, referring to the lodger (Artful Dodger). 

Pete Bailey, who comes from Hackney, recalled, ‘Growing up on the market, I used to hear everyone speaking it. Now it’s just a rare thing. I was at a football match last season and was standing with our captain’s girlfriend. She was shivering so I handed her my scarf and said, “Get that round your Gregory”. She looked at me funny and said, “What are you talking about?”. I’m trying to keep the Cockney language alive by teaching my godchildren.’

More commonly used today to describe a working class London accent, the term ‘Cockney’ actually has a specific geographical radius. It is officially defined as someone born within earshot of the chiming bells of Cheapside’s St Mary-le-Bow Church.

So, how exactly does this old-school lingo work? And, how on earth does a word like ‘plates’ come to mean ‘feet’? In its simplest form, a common word (feet) is typically replaced by a rhyming phrase of two or three words (plates of meat). The most proficient Cockney would usually shorten this back down to one word (plates). And, there you have it. Suddenly the expression ‘me plates are killing me’ translates as ‘my feet hurt’.

Don’t be fooled by the off-the-tongue ease at which it is most authentically delivered. These sayings can get confusingly cryptic. ‘Double slang’ is even harder to unscramble; this is how the name of a Greek philosopher came to mean one’s derrière. Aris is short for Aristotle. Aristotle rhymes with bottle. Bottle and glass rhymes with…you might want to have a go at working that one out yourself.

Marian Peck commented on our Facebook call out explaining her recollections of ‘backslang’. She said, ‘I think there were a couple of versions, but the one Cyril used was to take off the first letter of the word and put an ‘a’ on the end. So cat would be ‘ata’, television would be ‘elevisiona’.He came from Poplar, but worked as a bell boy in a London Hotel in the 1920s. Apparently a lot of staff could speak it and so the guests would not know what they were saying if they wanted to have a private conversation. My sister had go at it and tried to teach me, but I never had the patience!’

Some terms were born out of the summers that Cockneys spent hop picking. Whole families from the poorer parts of London would migrate ‘down to Kent’ to work on the fields, providing the surge of manual labour needed at harvest time. ‘Cherry’ is slang for ‘dog’, relating to the ‘cherry hog’ container that was used to collect crops. East Ender, Kim West, recalls, ‘I remember as a child in the hop fields, the adults would use slang and us kids would pick it up. The farmer would not understand a word’. 

Other older examples relate to London locations. ‘Peckham Rye’ meaning ‘tie’, ‘Hampstead Heath’ meaning ‘teeth’ and ‘Tilbury Docks’ meaning ‘socks’. An all time favourite, first recorded in the 1850s, has to be ‘Barnet (fair)’, relating to one’s hair.  

In the 20th century, celebrity names began to influence these linguistic inventions. Musician Hank Marvin’ came to mean ‘starving’, singer Ruby Murray morphed into a synonym for ‘curry’, and racing driver Ayrton Senna was the new way of saying ‘tenner’. 

During the 2012 Olympics, an ATM on Commercial Street gave customers the language option of ‘Cockney rhyming slang’. To withdraw a bit of ’sausage and mash’ (cash), you were first asked to enter your ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (pin). This led to monetary prompts such as ‘Lady Godiva’ (£5) and ‘Horn of Plenty’ (£20). 

In 1987, Mile End born record producer Paul Oakenfold coined the slang phrase ‘It’s all gone Pete Tong’, meaning ‘a bit wrong’. He wrote it in an article about acid house called ‘Bermondsey Goes Balearic’ for ‘Boy’s Own’ fanzine. Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong adopted it as the name for his Ibiza club night set and his nightly radio programme in the United States. 

Whether from Del Boy or Danny Dyer, you have probably heard a bit of Cockney rhyming slang when watching the custard (telly – from ‘custard and jelly’). Some phrases even made it to DisneyLand via the lamplighters and chimney sweepers of ‘Mary Poppins’.

From old cockney classics, like ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, to the lyrics of The Kinks and The Streets, you may have heard some rhyming slang sing from your record player or through your speakers.

Although it comes from the East End, the use of Cockney rhyming slang spreads far beyond the Bow Bells. The East Midlands accent has substituted ‘Derby Road’ for ‘cold’ and, down under, the name of Australian businessman Reg Grundy created ‘grundies’ (an Aussie word for ‘undies’). 

Despite their travels, these phrases are undoubtedly heard most satisfyingly from the buoyant vocal box of a true, old-school, Cockney. In fact, some terms won’t make sense in any other accent. ‘Joanna’ means piano, relying on the ‘piannah’ pronunciation.  Bawdy, bolshy and cheeky, the organically East End intonations perfectly capture the lingo’s playful charm. 

Is the tradition dying out? A study carried out by the Museum of London in 2012 surveyed 2000 people, half of them Londoners, about their understanding and use of Cockney rhyming slang. It emerged that just 8% used the terms in everyday speech. The changing face of society, with new multi-cultural influences and the rise of virtual communication, is more aptly reflected in the contemporary slang of today’s youth.

However, that’s not to say that Cockney rhyming slang is a distant memory. New references to popular culture have been updating the canon since Victoria sat on the throne.  The famous cartoon dog ‘Scooby Doo’ even managed to make the cut when ‘not a scooby’ came to mean ‘not a clue’.

Some phrases have become obsolete, but some are here to stay. Just as Shakespeare’s plays gave us terms like ‘a laughing stock’ and ‘a pound of flesh’, the old rhymes of East End folk have seeped right into the heart of the English Language. So, despite change and time, maybe it’ll never really be ‘brown bread’.

To find out more about Cockney rhyming slang, you can watch this archive footage about how it was used.

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8 thoughts on “Cockney rhyming slang history: the roots, the rhymes and the reasons

  • I’m a septic tank—and I use these all the time (and I’m not telling porkies). Some think me crocs ‘n gators.

    –trailer park vixen

  • Love this atricle. My dad a London docker from Wapping used a whole lot more slang. Billo, meaning wathch out the authorities are about. Cabbage (not sure what this was) and Banjo for a cab or taxi, I’ve yet to find an explanation ! it’s doin me cannister in.

    • Cabbage and stew ( do) as in party

  • I read these articles with some worry that people will take them as the full truth. A lot of rhyming slang has been made up in recent years, there is nothing wrong with that, but please recognise it as such. The mention of developing a language rather than odd words makes more sense and you could experience this in one of the wholesale markets (Spitalfields, Smithfields etc.) and whole sentences were constructed with back slang and rhyming slang so that the casual bystander or the authorities did not know what was being discussed. Product quality was discussed in front of a potential buyer without him understanding what was being said. Comments about a person’s looks could be exchanged this way as well. Swear words were also “translated” so that they were not offensive to the casual passerby.

    As for “apples and pears” the idea of using two words to describe one word is not quite true, the second word “apples” was used alone, and you had to know to add pears to get the rhyme, other than that apples on its own meant nothing. Likewise “Barnet”, the link to hair only occurs if you know about the fair. Likewise, Ruby, Rosie, plates, et al..

    Whilst you look at this, you should also consider the names for various numbers and amounts of money. That was a big part of the patois with monkeys, ponies etc.

    Basically if you invent a “new” slang term, the other person has to understand what it means, and I am guessing that a lot started life in a sentence where they made sense at the time.

    Finally, and I could be wrong here, but think about bottle and glass and “lost your bottle” which is also called a bottlejob might have come from the “glass” part in the sense of a squeeky b*m?

  • Thank you. I found this very interesting. I remember my grandparents using a lot of Cockney slang and backslang. They tried teaching me some when I was little and my mum was mortified!

  • In 1936 I was born in Newington, in the metropolitan Borough of Southwark. (AS PER DETAILS ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE). Newington is immediately on the southbank of the thames. The southern end of Southwark Bridge is in
    Newington. And the cente of Newington is less than 1 mile from st Mary le Bow.
    So, am I a cockney? Peter Asslett

    • Can you hear the bells, Peter?

  • I remember hearing ‘forty fousand fevers on a frush’ when I was young and I lived in Worcestershire and thought it came from Cockney song by a Music Hall singer. I remember asking Mother what it meant and she said it was really ‘Forty thousand feathers on a thrush’ I asked who had counted them? she told me she didn’t know!!


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