Cockney Rhyming Slang and How to Understand It

A genuine Cockney is someone who was born in London where Bow Bells could be heard chiming. These are the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church at Cheapside. The true Cockney accent is not heard very often inside the City of London but it is now quite common to hear it in the outer London areas and across the south east of England, especially in the county of Essex.

Cockney rhyming slang is the traditional language of Cockney Londoners and can be traced back to the 17th century. However it was not until two hundred years later that it became more widely known. It began as a sort of jargon used by thieves in the East End of London but rhymes of this kind are also used in other languages among groups such as criminals and gypsy clans where they wanted to be secretive and didn’t want anyone else to understand what they said.

Over a thousand examples of English rhyming slang have been recorded but not all of them are still in use. Some examples of those still in common use are:

Butcher’s hook (look)

Hampstead Heath (teeth)

Barnet Fair (hair)

Bottle and glass (class)

Bird lime (prison: now often just called ‘doing bird’.)

Saucepan lid (kid: child)

Jam-jar (car)

Cain and Able (table)

Frog and toad (road: often shortened to just ‘toad’.)

Whistle and flute (suit)

Half inch (pinch: meaning steal)

With many of these rhyming slang phrases only the first part is used. So:

I’m just going down the toad to have a butcher’s at Mike’s new jam-jar.

Translates to: I’m just going down the road to have a look at Mike’s new car.

By using the first part of these phrases instead of the whole thing, the speaker made it impossible for a stranger to understand.

Over time English rhyming slang has found its way to Australia where they still call a bar, or a pub, a ‘rubbedy’ which comes from the expression ‘rub-a-dub-dub’. They also call English immigrants ‘pommies’ which is thought to have originated from the word ‘pomegranate’ which was the rhyming slang for ‘immigrant’.

Anyone who has ever seen the British comedy shows, ‘Only Fools and Horses’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, or ‘Porridge’ will have heard lots of Cockney rhyming slang used in a natural environment.

Cockney rhyming slang has in recent years been integrated into English all over the world and can be heard in countries as far afield (from England) as US and Japan. New rhyming slang is being invented all the time and there also seems to be a revival of the old language used by the costermongers and barrow boys of the old East End of London.


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