Let’s take a butcher’s at cockney rhyming slang

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Posted: 
May 6, 2019
Written by: Line Lalande

Do you remember talking in code or using a secret language when you were a kid? Maybe you spoke to your brother in pig Latin so your parents wouldn’t find out that you’d skipped school. Well, if you grew up in Britain, like many who emigrated to Canada, you might have used cockney rhyming slang to keep your secrets safe.

Background

What is cockney rhyming slang? Well, let’s break the term down. A cockney is someone who was born in the East End of London (think of Eliza Doolittle in the play “Pygmalion” and the movie “My Fair Lady”). A regional slang based on rhymes is believed to have originated in this part of London in the mid-nineteenth century; hence the term “cockney rhyming slang.”

Legend has it that this dialect of sorts was created by criminals and other unsavoury characters who needed a “secret code” to confuse the authorities, and was later used by street hawkers and market traders to keep customers from understanding them. Either way, cockney rhyming slang seems to have served a purpose in both crime and commerce!

Variations

Here are four different methods traditionally used to form cockney rhyming slang.

  1. Take a phrase or an expression that rhymes with a word, and use that phrase or expression instead of the word:
    mouth = north and south
    So “I kept my north and south shut” means “I kept my mouth shut.”
  2. Follow the instructions above, but this time, drop the rhyming word:
    stairs = apples and pears = apples
    Now you’re “climbing the apples.” That’ll really confuse ‘em!
  3. Follow the instructions above, dropping the rhyming word; and then alter the remaining word:
    lie = pork pie = pork = porky
    So “Stop telling me porkies” means “Stop telling me lies.”
  4. Simply replace one word in a phrase or expression with one that rhymes with it:
    laugh = giraffe
    So “having a giraffe” means “having a laugh.”

Keep in mind that some cockney rhyming slang can only be understood if you’re familiar with the cockney accent. For instance, “Aunt Joanna” means “piano.” That’s because in cockney English, “piano” is pronounced “pianna,” which rhymes with “Joanna.”

Popular examples

Here are some more examples of this entertaining slang. (Where the rhyming word has been dropped, the long form is given in parentheses.)

Relationships

  • husband (“old man”) = pot and pan
  • wife (“Missus”) = cows and kisses (also “trouble,” from “trouble and strife”)
  • daughter = bricks and mortar
  • son = Bath bun / currant bun (“currant bun” is also used for the sun, and for the Sun, a British tabloid)
  • kids = dustbin lids
  • friend = china (from “china plate,” to rhyme with “mate”)
  • sweetheart = treacle (from “treacle tart”)

Parts of the body

  • arms = chalk farms
  • ears = jugs (from “jug of beer”)
  • eyes = minces (from “mince pies”)
  • face = boat race
  • feet = plates (from “plates of meat”)
  • fists = dukes (from “Duke of York,” to rhyme with “fork,” a cockney term for a fist)
  • head = loaf (from “loaf of bread”)
  • heart = strawberry (short for “strawberry tart”)
  • legs = Scotches (from “Scotch eggs”)
  • teeth = Hampsteads (from “Hampstead Heath”)

Common items

  • money = bread (from “bread and honey”)
  • car = jam jar
  • boots = daisies (from “daisy roots”)
  • hat = titfer (from “tit for tat”)
  • phone = dog and bone (may be shortened to “dog”)
  • tea = Rosie (from “Rosie Lee”)
  • watch = kettle (from “kettle and hob,” to rhyme with “fob,” since “fob watch” was a name for a pocket watch in the 19th century)

Evolution

Cockney rhyming slang is alive and well, not only in Britain, but also in other English-speaking countries, including Canada, the United States and Australia. It has been used in songs, movies and TV shows throughout the years. You can even check it out on Twitter, Facebook and dozens of websites!

While many cockney rhyming slang phrases have fallen out of fashion, new ones continue to emerge, often reflecting pop culture. In fact, modern cockney rhyming slang tends to rhyme words with the names of celebrities. For example, you and your friends might have a few Britneys (beers) at the local pub. And if malt beverages aren’t your Jay-Z (cup of tea), how about a glass of Calvin (wine) instead?

Now that you know how cockney rhyming slang works, can you decode the title of this post? Come on now, use your loaf! Hint: “butcher’s” is short for “butcher’s hook,” which rhymes with a synonym for “gander!”

What’s your favourite example of cockney rhyming slang? Share some of your pet cockney phrases (or some of your own creations) in the comments section!

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Line Lalande

Line Lalande

Line Lalande initially worked in the exciting world of marketing before taking the leap into translation. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, she worked as a translator and an editor for several years. She joined the Portal team in 2009, bringing her strong writing skills and fun personality with her. Although she has moved on, she continues to keep up with the Portal from her home base: retirement! Line enjoys outdoor activities, crossword puzzles, family time and her cats.

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