Cockney Rhyming Slang Is À La Mode

Published on November 29th, 2009 in: Culture Shock, Issues, OMG British R Coming |

By Margaret Cross

Being a huge fan of Brit flicks, the BBC, Brit writing, and of course, Brit gangsters, I have been in the thrall of so-called “Cockney Rhyming Slang” for close to two decades now. I’ve been an avid student, doing my best to understand the riddle that is rhyming slang. Here, for you Popshifters, I break it down in the easiest way I am able. These are some clever Brits!

The general term “Cockney Rhyming Slang” is itself a misnomer, since to be accurate, it should be called “London Rhyming Slang.” But like everything else involved with this slang, it’s all about secrecy and throwing off outsiders. If ever you’ve watched British TV or films and found yourself driven to distraction trying to figure out what was just said, this is a brief a primer on what Rhyming Slang is, why it is, and some examples you can use in your own life to annoy your friends!

cockney spoken here

Rhyming slang is really a collection of phrases that rhyme with the word they are slanging. A simple example, which dates back to 1857, is, “I’ve been up the apples and pears all day!” Apples and Pears is slang that rhymes with Stairs, so it means simply “I’ve been up and down the stairs all day!”

That seems easy enough, if convoluted. Why add extra words to create a slangy, shorthand way of speaking? Thus begins the first reason I became intrigued with this slang, shown to be around since Victorian England.

First found in printed books dating to 1845, rhyming slang is structured for the lower classes and criminal elements. This is proven (somewhat) by Charles Dickens publishing a series of articles in the 1850s titled “Household Words.” It was meant to be a sort of urban slang dictionary, but not one piece of rhyming slang was included. Why? Even then it was thought to be vulgar, coarse street talk, a code for criminals and low life types. This is probably why it became known as “Cockney” rhyming slang in the twentieth century.

Anyone who is a fan of Brit films and television will understand why Cockney would be the adjective chosen over London. Whether Cockney is a harsh stereotype term for the lower classes or a true description, is a debate unto itself. Still, Cockney came to be a catchall word that in our parlance, would be similar to White Trash.

A true Cockney means nothing more than “someone born within the sound of Bows Bells, St. Mary-Le-Bow Church in Cheapside, England.” But tall tales stacked upon white lies and white class-ism were what produced this slang.

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3 Responses to “Cockney Rhyming Slang Is À La Mode”

  1. Alex:
    December 3rd, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Enjoyable article, but it’s Hampstead Heath, without an S on the end, and I don’t think that even a casual girlfriend would appreciate being called a tart!

  2. Popshifter:
    December 3rd, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Uh oh, typo alert!


  3. Margaret:
    December 7th, 2009 at 11:12 am

    I think you are correct in saying no girl likes to be called a tart, per se. Instead of ‘casual girlfriend’, and for better translation to the American masses, let’s call her a hood rat, booty call, or last gal left in the bar at close…


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