Non English speakers are often left in a state of bewilderment when they encounter Cockney Rhyming Slang for the very first time on a visit to London.
And they are not alone. Even anglophones from other countries or other areas of the UK are often left scratching their heads too at this strange humoristic dialect.
Cockney Rhyming Slang was thought to have been created in the markets of East London in the mid 19th century by traders wanting to make comments without being understood by the general public.
Phrases were created which rhyme with a real word – such as ‘a head’ would be known as ‘a loaf of bread’ – thus confusing anyone not in the know.
To make things even more complicated, the full phrase would then often be abbreviated to a single word – the non-rhyming one, of course! In this case ‘loaf of bread’ becomes simply ‘loaf’.
Nowadays, many British people use the expression ‘use your loaf’ without being aware of its origins.
Good to know
Slang (‘argot’) is very informal speech – usually reserved for specific groups of people to exclude others.
Cockneys are traditionally natives of Inner London – more precisely the East End. It is said that to be a true Cockney you have to be born within audible distance of the Bow Bells (the bells of Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside).
Here are some of the most well-known Cockney Rhyming Slang phrases:
Butcher’s (hook) = a look
‘Let’s have a butcher’s!’
Porkies/pork pies = lies
‘Who’s been telling porkies then?’
Old China (plate) = a mate (friend/pal)
‘Alright my old china?’
A giraffe = a laugh
‘You’re having a giraffe, aren’t you?’ (you’re not serious are you?)’
The trouble (and strife) = wife
‘Here comes the trouble.’
Whistle (and flute) = suit
‘He’s got his best whistle on today’
A Joanna = a piano (to rhyme with ‘piana’)
‘Go and have a tinkle (a play) on the Joanna.’
Tea leaf = a thief
Half inch = pinch (to steal)
‘That tea leaf has only gone and half-inched my motor!’ (car)
Plates (of meat) = feet
‘Get your dirty plates off my clean floor.’
Scotches/scotch eggs = legs
‘She’s got a nice pair of scotches’
Hamstead (Heath) = teeth
‘I’ve got 3 gold Hamsteads’
Brown Bread = dead
‘If you cross me, you’ll be brown bread.’
Put your Cockney Rhyming Slang to the test
Take a butcher’s at the following expressions. What do you think they mean?
The answers are at the end of the article.
- ‘Look at the state of her barnet, it’s all over the place.’
- ‘Amazing! You couldn’t Adam and Eve it, could you?’
- ‘He’s got a miserable-looking boat.’
- ‘She’s been on the dog for over an hour now.’
- ‘I’m going up the apples.’
- ‘We went around to their cat last night for dinner.’
A living language
Although Cockney Rhyming Slang may have originated in the markets over 150 years ago, it certainly isn’t out of date and continues to evolve over the years.
The word ‘Ruby’, for example, has become synonymous with “curry” since the 1950s. Many people know it is short for “Ruby Murray”, but few people nowadays know that she was a famous Irish singer at the time.
Other expressions involving famous people include:
Hank Marvin = starving
‘I’m Hank Marvin. I’m going for a Ruby.’
Fred Astaires = chairs
‘Get your plates off me Freds!’
Fat Boy Slim = gym
‘I’m off to the Fat Boy for a workout’
Pete Tong (a famous UK DJ in the 1990s)= wrong
‘Oh no, it’s all gone Pete Tong!’
Winona (Ryder) = cider
‘I’ll have a pint of Winona, me old China.’
Wallace and Grommit = vomit
‘I’m not feeling well, I’m gonna Wallace and Grommit.’
The future of Cockney Rhyming Slang
Unfortunately with the influence of social media and the power of globalisation, Cockney Rhyming Slang is heard less and less often. It is still, however, spoken in certain districts of London, whilst certain people will always invent new expressions à la mode (in code) – just for a giraffe!!
Discover more expressions at this site dedicated to Cockney Rhyming Slang.
Answers: Put your Cockney Rhyming Slang to the test
- Barnet/Barnet fair = hair
- Adam and Eve = believe
- Boat (race) = face
- Dog (and bone) = phone
- Apples (and pears) = stairs
- Cat (and mouse) = house