Alarming news that one of the most enjoyable of world dialects – Cockney rhyming slang – may be set to die out in London and elsewhere.
Rhyming slang is a form of phrase construction that is especially prevalent in dialectal English from the East End of London; hence the alternative name, Cockney rhyming slang. The construction involves replacing a common word with a rhyming phrase of two or three words and then, in almost all cases, omitting the secondary rhyming word (which is thereafter implied), in a process called hemiteleia, making the origin and meaning of the phrase elusive to listeners not in the know. That fact may well have been behind the growth of the linguistic habit – obscuring the facts of a situation from authority figures such as the police – or the “bottle stoppers”, ie coppers.
A well-known example is replacing the word “stairs” with the rhyming phrase “apples and pears”. Following the pattern of omission of the second or subsequent words, “and pears” is dropped, thus the spoken phrase “I’m off up the apples” means “I’m going up the stairs”.
In similar fashion, “telephone” is replaced by “dog” (= ‘dog-and-bone’); “wife” by “the trouble” (= ‘trouble-and-strife’); “eyes” by “mincers” (= ‘mince pies’); “wig” by “syrup” (= ‘syrup of figs’) and “feet” by “plates” (= ‘plates of meat’).
Thus a construction of the following type could conceivably arise: “It nearly knocked me off me plates—he was wearing a syrup! So I ran up the apples, got straight on the dog to me trouble and said I couldn’t believe me mincers.”
In some examples the meaning is further obscured by adding a second iteration of rhyme and truncation to the original rhymed phrase. For example, the word “Aris” is often used to indicate the buttocks. This is the result of a double rhyme, starting with the original rough synonym “arse” for buttocks, which is then rhymed with “bottle and glass”, leading to “bottle”. “Bottle” was then in its turn rhymed with “Aristotle” and truncated to “Aris”. “Nice Aris, darlin'” can still be heard on the streets of London today when an attractive girl is bold enough to walk past a building site.The use of rhyming slang has spread beyond the purely dialectal and some examples are to be found in the mainstream British English lexicon and internationally, although many users may be unaware of the origin of those words.
One example is “berk”, a mild pejorative term for a foolish person widely used across the UK and not usually considered particularly offensive, although the origin lies in a contraction of “Berkeley Hunt”, as the rhyme for the significantly more offensive “cu*t”.
Another well-known example is to “have a butcher’s” for to have a look, which is derived from “butcher’s hook”.
Here are some more of our favourites:
Cow and kisses = the ‘missus’ or wife. This may be how the pejorative term “cow” came to be applied to an argumentative person.
God love ‘er = mother, although beyond the esteemed lady’s hearing she might also be called “the strangle”, from “strangle and smother”.
China plates = mates. This may be one of the few terms that will survive longer, as “You OK me old China?” can still be heard commonly around the East End.
Cat and mouse = house. Possibly because both typically inhabited said venue. An alternative is “Gates of Rome”, possibly reflecting the gladiatorial combat about to ensue with the Cow and kisses.
Bob Hope = soap. The famous entertainer was born in London, moving to the USA when he was four. Interestingly, his first show on American network radio was the Woodbury Soap Hour.
Hat and scarf = bath. Perhaps reflective of the fact that this rare event was often taken in a small lukewarm tin bath in front of a weak fire trying to keep a cold cat and mouse above near freezing level. Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink can actually recall taking a “bath” still clothed in a woollen jumper in the east end of London one particularly chilly day.
Iron horse = racecourse. Possibly because the early traction engines – called iron horses – took over the haulage work of horses in some situations. The name then got transferred back to the places where real horses ran.
Belt and braces = races. An obvious rhyme, but also perhaps because people got “dressed up” to attend a race meeting.
Hot dinner = winner. Perhaps after a good day at the belt and braces you could afford one. The phrase “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” is used widely in Australia, by the way, to mean any “good or happy thing or event”, after the great good fortune of winning the weekly “chook raffle” in the local pub.
Grumble and mutter = to take a “flutter”, ie place a bet on a horse or dog race. Probably the indicative sound made by someone when their nag runs home plumb last.
Food gets its fair suck of the saveloy in rhyming slang, too.
Borrow and beg = egg. Which is what one had to do for an egg during the Second World War, in particular.
Kate & Sydney = Steak & Kidney. Usually in a pie.
Uncle Reg = equals veg(etables), as in “Pass the Uncle Reg”.
Perhaps the best known is:
Ruby Murray = Curry, a favourite food of the working class from the British Raj onwards, and now such a stable that the dish Chicken Tikka Marsala is now the national dish of the country. You still often hear “Fancy grabbing a Ruby?” late at night in a thousand pubs, so this, too, may survive the general decline in rhyming slang. The term comes from a hugely popular Irish singer called Rub Murray in the 1950s: although she is now largely forgotten her name lives on in rhyming slang.
(Another similar example is “Billy Cotton” for “rotten”, although few now remember the famed band leader who filled our wirelesses with his joyful sounds in the later 50s and early 60s.)
Another term that might survive is “Rub a Dub” for the “pub”, although “Jack Tar” for “bar” is less well known or heard now. The latter comes from the days when sailors were notorious for drinking heavily, “Rub a Dub” seems to be simply a good rhyme, pinched from the 18th century nursery rhyme “rub a dub dub, three men in a tub”.
Runner and rider = Cider, although no on seems sure why beyond the rhyme.
Christmas cheer = Beer, as in, “I’m popping down the rub a dub for a Christmas, you coming?”
A really fascinating one is:
Dicky Dirt = Shirt, from the 19 century when a detachable shirt front worn under a jacket was called a “dicky”, which may be why to this day we call a bow tie a “dicky bow”.
Perhaps less well known is:
Tate & Lyle = Style, as in “Putting on the Tate & Lyle tonight, aren’t you, me old China?” and named after a famous sugar company. Sugar was associated with wealth, and tea rooms and tea dances, where the less well-off went to indulge in a little occasional luxury.
Rhyming slang can be amusingly blunt.
Pony = Crap, untrue or nonsensical. From “Pony and Trap”, which is also frequently used as a euphemism for visiting the loo.
Paper Hat = Prat, a useless person
Paraffin Lamp = Tramp, as in “Have a wash you smelly paraffin”.
Sometimes only knowing a little history can explain the terms used.
Kettle = Watch, as in “Nice new Kettle you’re wearing mate.” One of the most confusing of all rhyming slang expression, because the derivation of Kettle from the word “watch” is unclear – until you know a little bit about the history of watches that is.
Kettle is the shortened form of Kettle and Hob – think of the oven range in an old fashioned house, with its kettle boiling away on the round hob. When pocket watches first became fashionable, they were held against the body by use of a small chain. The watch then slipped into the pocket and could be easily extracted without dropping it. These were called fob watches, and it’s from this expression that we get Kettle and Hob for watch.
Somethimes though, the rhyming slang is just plain fun, as in:
Yarmouth Bloater = motor
: which plays out as “Have you seen my new Yarmouth?” for “Have you seen my new car?” A Yarmouth Bloater was a much prized and expensive smoked fish to buy in the fish markets of the East End. It was also made into a packaged paste (as shown in the picture) to be spread on bread at tea-time. A real treat. As is, presumably, a new car.
Which is partly why it would be such a shame if rhyming slang were to die out. Not only does it give us a direct link to our past, it’s also entertaining. Long evolved from being a way to keep information secret, it is now a distinct regional dialect, as valuable as any other.
Let us hope a new generation reared on slang that is more likely to have emanated from the streets of LA or New York discovers their own rich linguistic heritage before it’s too late.
Do you have a favourite piece of rhyming slang we haven’t highlight? Please tell us about it! Or we might end up sitting over here on our Pat Malone remembering it.