What is a Cockney?
If you were born within earshot of Bow Bells in London you can rightfully claim to be a genuine, 100% thoroughbred Cockney.
London is the place you need to go to hear Cockney rhyming slang in all its glory, but you might have to hurry because this unique form of English phraseology is slowly losing a grip on the east end of England's greatest city.
Nearly two hundred years old, this incredibly inventive 'slang' is in need of a revival and this hub is one humble attempt to help keep it dancing down the Whitechapel Road. Once upon a time, it would have been spoken from Tower Bridge to Bermondsey, from Wapping to Cheapside, but Cockney rhyming slang is now a sort of secretive thing.
So, keep your Elvis on. You may have valid four seasons to Botany Bay but don't be a Michael Caine, sit down, give your bacon and eggs a minute's peace and when you've had a french egg we'll let you go get some in the nude. Now, park your plates of meat and have a good butchers will ya?
Ok. To get you heading in the right direction here is a rough translation of the above-highlighted paragraph, for beginners!
So, please calm down (keep your hair on). You may have valid reasons to run away but don't be a pain, sit down, give your legs a rest and when you've had enough we'll let you go get some food. Now, time to stop and have a good look. Why not?
A Few Choice Examples
Elvis / Aaron = hair on
A bit mutton / mutton Geoff = deaf
Have a butchers / butchers hook = look
Reels of cotton = rotten
Having a bubble / bubble bath = laugh
Gregory Peck = neck
Syrup / syrup of figs = wig
Cockney: A Pearl of a Language
Cockney rhyming slang as you can see from the above examples is absolutely full of rhymes, often taken from popular culture and tacked on in place of familiar words to turn them into comical and memorable phrases.
When you hear it in the flesh like I have it becomes a sort of self-contained coded language, understandable only to those who practise it on a regular basis.
On the whole, it's used mainly by young males although there are some female practitioners. It remains a lingo of the street and workplace and can still be heard on the odd occasion when the big east end markets are held.
You may hear it spoken by older men and by the famous Pearly Kings and Queens. More commonly it's to be found in the county of Essex, in the town of Romford but is spoken in Barking, West Ham and further afield to the east.
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The BBC have a regular weekly soap opera called Eastenders which has been on the go for nearly thirty years. It's set in a fictitious London borough where most of the characters speak with a typical east end accent. Granted, it's not real Cockney but you can get a good idea of what the real McCoy would sound like. Ain't that true Dot?
Cor Blimey Guvnor: Proper Cockney
Proper cockney rhyming slang when spoken omits the actual rhyming word. For example, if you wanted a nice cup of tea, you'd ask for a nice cuppa Rosie (Lee) in Cockney, but not add Lee. See? Clear as mud? Understood.
To give you an idea of what Cockney sounds like imagine a conversation between modern-day actors Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Michael Caine was born in Rotherhithe, Southwark, south London and retains his slight Cockney accent, whilst Bob Hoskins was raised in north London and also has a hint of Cockney in his voice. As actors they could both easily pass as genuine authentic Cockney Barrow Boys, peddling their wares along the Ratcliffe Highway, giving it full steam to the passers-by.
Longers and lingers = fingers
Wind and kite = website
The east end has always been a busy, hard-working district of London, packed with all sorts of businesses employing all manner of people. Ethnic races have played a vital part in keeping the mix of cultures alive and bubbling. If you visit certain areas of the east end on food market days you can be transported to another land, exotic and flavoursome! Amidst all of this wonderful colour and vibrancy sits the Cockney culture, alive and well in the pubs and behind the stalls. You might have to search it out but it's there.
You may get the craving for pie and mash and a pot of tea! You may want a jellied eel with that pint of London ale! You could eat fish and chips with your longers and lingers! Then nip down to the Internet cafe for an hour and have a butcher's at the Cockney rhyming slang wind and kite!
Typical Cockney Menu
1 pie 1 mash
1 pie 2 mash
2 pie 1 mash, or the big one.....
2 pie 2 mash
With or without liquor, dill sauce or gravy
Cup of tea
Origins and History
Cockney rhyming slang is said to have originated in the early 1800's in the east end of London. Nobody knows for certain just how it was invented but some historians claim it was the street sellers who started the play on words - to avoid any trouble from the local police! With their own in-house phrases the authorities could be bypassed and business carried on as usual.
For example, let's say there was a bank robbery one night in the east end. Two pedlars have been pulled over by a suspicious police officer for questioning -
Police Officer: Can you tell me exactly what you were doing at 7 pm on the evening of the 7th September when the money from the Bank was stolen?
Pedlar 1: Of course. From the bottom of me strawberry tart, no porky pies, I was darn the rub a dub for a couplea pig's ears, you know, Britney Spears, with the trouble and strife and the old pot and pan. Ain't that right Mutton Chops?
Pedlar 2 : You're not wrong. A right jet fighter we had. Ain't that the babe, without a brussels sprout......now, what else d'ya wanna know bottle stopper?
The Shakespearean Connection
Although cockney rhyming slang had its start in the 19th century the word cockney is much older. It even appears in two of Shakespeare's plays! According to the glossary in the Alexander text, it means useless fellow.
Twelfth Night - Act 4 Scene 1
Clown : Vent my folly, I am afraid this great lubber, the world, will prove a cockney.
King Lear - Act 2 Scene 4
Fool : Cry to it nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put 'em i' th' paste alive.
Cockney rhyming slang appeared on the streets of east London at a time when the city was booming, the streets full of cabs, horses, children and costermongers who sold goods from small handcarts, trays and boxes. Anything from apples and vegetables to matches and caged birds.
These were times of great change. The industrial revolution was about to take off, business entrepreneurs were rubbing their hands in anticipation and the empire was growing ever bigger. Yet, extremes of poverty were on view daily in London and amongst the poorest were the costermongers who were always struggling for a living.
Out of this desperation, you could say came the slang, 'back slang', which evolved into the Cockney rhyming slang we know today. It probably began by accident, as a bit of a laugh, something to pass the time away, and was then developed by more educated sellers into a more functional sort of language.
Whilst some words are simply reversed - 'on' = no and 'on doog' = no good, other phrases follow no set pattern - 'tumble to your barrikin' = understand you and 'cool ta the dillo nemo' = look at the old woman. There are hundreds of words and phrases that represent a virtual new language, a secret language of the streets, alleyways, docks and pubs that writers like Charles Dickens tapped into when he was writing his novel Oliver Twist.
© 2012 Andrew Spacey