Ever fallen down the apples and pears? How about given your trouble and strife a call on the dog and bone? Has all this got you scratching your loaf? It will if you’re not familiar with Cockney rhyming slang – London’s secret language.
How it works
Rhyming slang works by taking a common word and using a rhyming phrase of two or three words to replace it. For example, instead of using the word ‘look’ the rhyming phrase ‘butcher’s hook’ is used. Over the years a whole host of popular rhyming phrases has developed, and new ones still emerge.
So, to translate the intro – ‘apples and pears’ means ‘stairs’, ‘trouble and strife’ means ‘wife’, ‘dog and bone’ means ‘phone’, and ‘loaf of bread’ means ‘head’.
To make things that little bit more confusing for you, the second word – the rhyming word – is often completely omitted by the Cockney rhymer. So you might say “I’m just going up the apples”, which doesn’t rhyme with ‘stairs’ at all. If you want to get all language geeky about it, there’s an impressively technical term for omitting this second rhyming word – hemiteleia.
Never heard of a Cockney? Then you haven’t been watching enough Eastenders. That’s your cockney accent right there. Traditionally, a cockney is someone who lives in the East End of London – officially in any part of London where you can hear “the Bow bells”, of St Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside, London.
While London’s East End has emerged as a hipper-than-hip rival to gritty Brooklyn in recent years, at the time the term Cockney came about it was one of the poorest parts of the city, and the working classes there talked very differently to the well-to-do inhabitants of London’s West End.
Today the Cockney accent is heard less often in Central London, but you’ll still come across it, especially in the city suburbs and in towns across Essex and Befordshire.
You might well be wondering why on earth Cockney rhyming slang exists. Why replace a perfectly good English word with three? Why make conversation trickier, longer and more confusing?! Well, confusion may well be part of the answer.
Rhyming slang is thought to have originated in the mid-19th century in the East End of London, used by ‘chaunters’ and ‘patterers’ – both types of travelling salesmen. John Camden Hotten’s 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words includes the first known glossary of rhyming slang, including the well known ‘apples and pears’ and ‘frog and toad’ – ‘main road’.
No one knows for sure why Cockney rhyming slang came about. Some speculate that it emerged as a game or by linguistic accident, while others believe it was very much deliberate, created as a kind of coded language. Perhaps market traders wanted to be able to collude and talk amongst themselves without being understood by their customers. Perhaps it was an East End code designed to confuse non-locals – or perhaps it originated with criminals who wanted to confuse the police!
Rhyming slang today
While Cockney rhyming slang is definitely used less often today, it is far from dead. In fact, new rhyming slang still emerges to this day – although modern rhymes tend to rhyme with celebrities rather than everyday objects of phrases – for example, ‘Ayrton Senna’ is a fairly recent addition, meaning ‘tenner’, another name for a British £10 note.
Having been around since the 1840s at least, Cockney rhyming slang has had plenty of time to evolve and spread throughout the UK. Even today at the opposite end of the country you’ll find Cockney rhyming phrases that creep into everyday speech. Mainstays of the rhyming slang can be overheard in conversations all over the UK, like using your ‘loaf’, and going to get your ‘barnet’ done – ‘Barnet fair’ meaning ‘hair’!
TV has played an especially important role in helping Cockney rhyming slang to spread far and wide. TV shows set in working class London, like Only Fools and Horses, were incredibly popular, and helped slang terms work their way into the mainstream. This Facebook group dedicated to it all things Cockney rhyming slang shows you just how far and wide the language has spread, with enquiries and interest from all over the world.
So, do you think you can make it as a market trader in East London? If you want to test your knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang try out this quiz over at the Guardian website – and this handy wiki guide will help you brush up on the best known phrases too. Good luck me old chinas!