Slang is usually used to differentiate, to belong to a community with customs and traditions, and a “day to day” different from the norm, in short, to build an identity. And in London, almost 200 years ago, during the 19th century a curious way to forge that identity began: through strange and seemingly disjointed rhymes, in what constitutes a peculiar and unique language: Cockney rhyming slang.
In fact, the definition of ‘cockney’ is that of an individual born anywhere in London from where you can hear the chimes of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow, located between the stations of Bank and St. Paul’s. This condition generally includes almost all districts of the so-called East End of London.
Some believe that the cockney accent started in jail, so that the guards did not understand the prisoners. Others believe that the matter began in the markets, so that the clientele did not understand what shopkeepers were holding. Although its beginnings are diffuse, what is clear is that the phenomenon has lasted until today, acquiring dimensions that go beyond a mere anecdote, to the point where most English people know about its existence and know some words, and if you also want to learn to speak it or, at least, to understand it, you have to pay attention.
The mechanics that govern the Cockney rhyming slang is to substitute a word for another that, although in content it apparently does not have any relation with the first, it does maintain a formal relationship: rhyme. In short, it is about rhyming words. For example, to refer to stairs, in Cockney rhyming slang they will say apples and pears. Apples and pears have nothing to do with stairs, but it rhymes.
Some of the most distinctive features (speech patterns) of this dialect are:
- The sound of ‘t ’as a glotal occlusive, making words like water sound as wa’er. The ‘h’ is mute, so words that in British English would begin with an aspired h start directly with the vowel: house goes directly to ‘ouse’.
- The sound of ‘th’ that vibrates in the throat is replaced by ‘v’ and words like mother are heard ‘muvah’.
- Instead of using ‘my’, East End speakers use ‘me’: Me leg is broken.
These are some of the most famous phrases you could hear on your next trip to London:
1. APPLES AND PEARS = STAIRS
“I’m going up the apples to bed.” Do not be alarmed if a Londoner tells you to climb apples and pears, he has not gone mad or has stopped understanding English, he is simply talking about climbing stairs.
2. DOG AND BONE = PHONE
“Shhh, he’s on the dog and bone” (Shhh, he’s talking on the phone).
3. AL CAPONE = TELEPHONE
“He’s always on his Al Capone.” In the strange and wonderful world of cockney rhymes, Al Capone – the famous American gangster – means exactly the same as a dog and bone.
4. BARNEY RUBBLE = TROUBLE
Barney Rubble is not just a famous Flintstone. In London, Barney defines a situation that will cause you or has caused you a problem. “If I’m not home soon, I’m in a lot of Barney”.
5. BEES AND HONEY = MONEY
Loadsa bees an hunay, as a real Londoner would say, means a lot of money. “My new shirt was a lot of bees”
6. BUBBLE BATH = LAUGH
This is one of the most common phrases, and is said throughout the United Kingdom. It is used to express disbelief or to refuse to do something. “£50? You’re having a bubble.” (50 pounds? You’re laughing at me).
7. CHINA PLATE = MATE
You could say that London is the ideal city to meet with your porcelains. “Hello, my old China. How are you? (Hello, my old friend, how are you?).
8. PORK PIES = LIES
Here, the two words combine to create the word porkies. If someone tells you something you don’t believe, let them know that you think they are telling you porkies. “You’re telling me porkies”
9. HANK MARVIN = STARVING
Hank Marvin was the guitarist of a famous group of the sixties. The cockneys became fond of his name and now you can announce how hungry you are including Hank, Marvin or Hank Marvin in one sentence. “I’m completely Marvin” (I’m starving).
10. RUBY MURRAY = CURRY
Ruby Murray was a famous singer from the United Kingdom during the fifties, and her name (particularly her last name) has gone down in history as a word cockney for curry. “Let’s have a Ruby tonight.”
11. LOAF OF BREAD = HEAD
No, they are not asking you to arm yourself with a loaf of bread, they are suggesting or asking you to use your head and meditate on your actions “Use your loaf!”
12. BROWN BREAD = DEAD
Next time you hear Londoners talk about someone or something being brown bread, you’ll know what they are referring to. “Is Cockney brown bread or is it alive and kicking?”
13. TROUBLE AND STRIFE = WIFE
A very funny way of referring to wives and their strong character. “I gotta get back to the old trouble and strife before midnight or lese she’ll blow!”
14. BUTCHER’S HOOK = LOOK
This slang is used beyond London as is understood throughout the UK. It doesn’t really have any humorous intent (like trouble and strife, for example). “Lemme av’ a butchers hook at that.”
15. PLATES OF MEAT = FEET
The first recorded use of this slang is a piece of 1887 called “Tottie” by Dagonet. “As she walked along the street with her little ‘plates of meat’, and the summer sunshine falling on her golden ‘Barnet Fair’.”
16. BOTTLE AND STOPPER = POLICEMAN
This is an interesting term of cockney slang. Bottle could mean to enclose or store inside something, and stopper to “seal the bottle” or “a person or thing that halts or obstructs a specified thing”.
Cockney slang can be very interesting and fun to learn. Not only you get to learn about a part of London’s culture and history, it can also spice up your trip!