As a deliberately secretive spoken language, the precise origins and motivations of Cockney rhyming slang are vague. Was it a crafty ‘cryptolect’ invented by criminals to guard their words? Or a playful take on language popularised by tradesmen? The ambiguity of Cockney rhyming slang invites us to speculate.
Let’s start by defining precisely what we mean by ‘Cockney’. While the term now applies to all Londoners, especially those from the East End, the term originally referred exclusively to people who lived within earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-bow Church in Cheapside. Historically, the term ‘Cockney’ denoted working-class status.
Multiple sources identify the 1840s as the likely decade of Cockney rhyming slang’s inception. But it’s a notoriously difficult dialect to trace.
Here’s a short history of Cockney rhyming slang.
In 1839, Britain’s first professional police force, the Bow Street Runners, disbanded. They were replaced by the more formal, centralised Metropolitan Police. Until that point, criminals had run amok. Suddenly, discretion was required, one theory goes, and so Cockney rhyming slang emerged.
However, that explanation for Cockney rhyming slang’s emergence may be romanticised through folklore. One can question the likelihood of criminals openly discussing their deeds in the presence of police officers and note how few of the words were generally associated with crime. In this context, private communication seems far more likely than coded public communication.
An alternative theory suggests Cockney rhyming slang came about as a playful take on the language used by tradesmen, street vendors and dock workers. This certainly seems a better fit with Cockney rhyming slang’s general joviality and lightness.
Perhaps both explanations are valid, or one informed the other. Either way, the formula is distinct. Take a word – head, find a rhyming phrase – loaf of bread, and in some cases drop the rhyming word to add a layer of mystery – loaf. ‘Use your head’ becomes ‘use your loaf’.
Another staple of Cockney rhyming slang is the frequent reference to celebrities, e.g. ‘Ruby’ from ‘Ruby Murray’ – a popular singer during the 1950s – meaning ‘curry’. While some terms passed from Cockney rhyming slang into popular lexicon – ‘porkies’ from ‘porky pies’ meaning ‘eyes’ for example – popular usage has dwindled over the last century.
Although it is still used today, Cockney rhyming slang now exists as a fading relic of a bygone age. To help you navigate this purposefully vague world, here are some examples of Cockney rhyming slang with explanations.
Apples and pears – stairs. This phrase derives from handcart vendors who would arrange their goods, particularly fruit and vegetables, in ‘stairs’ from most fresh to least fresh, or vice versa.
Early hours – flowers. Flower sellers would have to get up particularly order in order to prepare and transport their produce for market.
Gregory – Gregory Peck – neck. Like many Cockney rhyming slang words, this appears to have been selected purely because of the rhyme.
Helter-Skelter – air raid shelter. This is an example of how Cockney rhyming slang often imbued a word with emotional resonance.
Lion’s lair – chair. This would be the favourite chair of the family patriarch, not an area to be trespassing in loudly, particularly on a Sunday.
Merry-go-round – pound. This was understood to be a reference to the phrase “money makes the world go round”.
Pimple and blotch – Scotch. A term for alcohol which serves as a warning about the dangers of over-consumption.
Stand to attention – pension. Taking a soldier as representative of those who have worked hard, paid in, and are now due to get their fair share.
Weep and wail – tale. This is used exclusively when describing a beggar’s tale, and the often-fanciful subject matter intended to illicit sympathy.