5 Reasons To Learn Cockney Rhyming Slang, The Weirdest And Best English Slang
Every country has its own tradition of slang. Americans, for example, are all absolute perverts for acronyms, and will think nothing of saying something deranged like "OMG, BFF's TV's DOA FYI," even though in any normal country concerned bystanders would start trying to shove a wallet in your mouth halfway through that sentence. Meanwhile, teenagers will often use cutting-edge slang exclamations like "jinkies!" or "zoinks Scoob!" in order to appear "hip" or "cool." This always fails, since the coolest slang of all was actually invented in 19th century London in order to confuse Northerners into buying heavily discounted dish soap. We're referring, of course, to cockney rhyming slang.
It's Extremely Easy To Pick Up
You're probably familiar with rhyming slang from movies like My Fair Lady or Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, which often exaggerate its more confusing aspects for humorous effect. For example, a character in Lock, Stock mentions ordering "an Aristotle of the most ping pong tiddly in the nuclear sub," even though saying that in an actual London pub would result in the entire staff queuing up politely to beat you toothless with a snooker cue. But here at Cracked we've never done anything for humorous effect, so we're going to break the whole slang down for you.
On a basic level, rhyming slang just involves substituting words that rhyme. So, in the sentence above "Aristotle" just means "bottle." That seems pretty easy, right? But here's the catch. True cockney rhyming slang pairs a word with a phrase of two or more words. So "apples and pears" means "stairs," "trouble and strife" is "wife," and "nuclear sub" might mean pub. Again, pretty straightforward. You could probably puzzle that out in a sentence. But here's the second catch: rhyming slang almost never appears to actually rhyme. For example, to talk is rabbiting, while barnet means hair.
That's because the rhyming part of the slang phrase is almost always dropped. So "barnet" is short for "Barnet Fair" (a popular 19th century horse fair). Barnet Fair rhymes with hair, hence barnet as slang for hair. Rabbit is short for "rabbit and pork," which works out neatly to talk if you squint your mouth just right. If you go back up to the first paragraph, "tiddly" stands for "tiddly wink," which in turn rhymes with drink. A true cockney would never go down the apples and pears to see his china plate ("mate") but would happily trot down the apples for a pint with his old china.
But wait, there's a third catch! The rhyming phrase can itself be cockney rhyming slang. Vox gives the example of "arris," which is a fairly common name for your backside. "Arris" is short for "Aristotle," which as mentioned above means bottle. And bottle is half of "bottle and glass," which rhymes with ass, hence arris means ass. Remember when we lied and said this was going to be easy? Hahaha! Good times!
It Hasn't Changed That Much Since The 19th Century
Rhyming slang was invented in the 19th century and it has not changed as much as you'd expect over time. In 1859, a self-declared lexicographer named John Camden Hotten published his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, an insanely entertaining book that contains the first description of cockney rhyming slang. Hotten claimed that the slang had been invented about "twelve or fifteen years ago" and already included familiar terms like "apples and pears" for "stairs" and "mince pies" for "eyes." It's like if you traveled 150 years into the future and everyone was still saying "on fleek."
The sheer endurance of rhyming slang is impressive, but the many outdated terms unfortunately do add an additional obstacle to actually understanding it. To add to that, many of the rhymes are so UK-centric that nobody outside the country has much of a chance. As a result, the only way to figure out many rhyming slang terms is to have them carefully explained -- for example, you might know to run away if someone yells "scarper!" But you'd only realize that it's rhyming slang if you happened to be familiar with Scapa Flow, a long-obsolete British naval base in the Orkney Islands which kind of rhymes with "go."
As mentioned above, "barnet" remains a common term for "hair," even though very few people have the knowledge of 19th century horse festivals required to figure out the "Barnet Fair" rhyme. Similarly, if someone kicked you right in the cobblers, you would be too busy clutching your balls to consider that they rhyme with "cobbler's awls," a type of tool that was presumably a much more common sight in the days before shoes were made out of of styrofoam and sweatshop worker tears. Even the famous "apples and pears = stairs" rhyme is quite outdated, since no British person has eaten a piece of fruit since at least 1903. Still, at least you wouldn't be too insulted if someone called you a berk, unless you somehow figured out that's short for "Berkshire hunt." Which in term rhymes with ... well you can figure that one out.
It Was Invented By Fast-Talking Salesmen ... Possibly To Help Scam People
At this point, you might be getting the impression that rhyming slang was deliberately designed to be as incomprehensible as possible. And you'd probably be right! Although its exact origins are a little mysterious, the most common theory is that rhyming slang was invented by a criminal underclass to confuse policemen and prevent honest citizens from figuring out their shady schemes. But don't go picturing bands of daring cockney bank robbers, plotting crazy heists over a delicious plate of jellied eels. Instead, rhyming slang was popularized by the 19th century equivalent of the traveling salesmen who tricked your grandmother into buying a set of encyclopedias that turned out to be stapled-together Wikipedia printouts.
According to Hotten's 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, rhyming slang was specifically the slang of the "patterers" who "deliver street orations on grease-removing compounds, plating powders, high polishing, blacking and the thousand-and-one wonderful pennyworths that are retailed to gaping mobs from a London curb." Although based in London, these guys were known to roam across the country with a good supply of "coarse jokes and six-bladed knives," towing "a van stuffed with the cheap productions of Sheffield and Brummagen (Birmingham)" and speaking a rhyming slang so heavy that "they might almost pass for foreigners." British people may note this stereotype stuck around quite a while:
Writing just as rhyming slang was being invented, Hotten claimed that the original rhymers were "nomadic poets ... like the other talkers of secret languages they are stamped with the vagabond's mark and are continually on the move," although "amongst tramps they terms themselves the 'harristocrats of the streets.'...but few fairs are held in any part of England without the patterer being punctually at his post, with his nostrums or real gold rings ... or paste which, when applied, makes the dullest razor keen enough to hack broom handles and sticks, and after that to have quite enough sharpness left for splitting hairs off the back of one of the clod-hoppers' heads looking on in amazement."
Like their spiritual successors (the ShamWow guy), the patterers were basically scammers, often selling shoddy goods or just outright conning people. A favorite move was fawney dropping, in which the patterer would leave a "gold" ring on the ground. When someone picked it up, the patterer would claim to have seen it at the same time and demand half. The mark, eager to escape before the real owner of the ring turned up, would eventually hand over a few coins to make the loudmouth shut up and go away. Later, he would discover that the ring was fake and that the patterer had vanished with his money.
A slightly more complicated version was fawney bouncing, in which a patterer would offer to sell a gold ring for a single shilling. When the surprised mark asked why, the patterer would explain that a rich guy had bet him a pile of cash that he couldn't sell such a valuable ring for virtually nothing. The patterer had taken the bet, only to discover that everyone at the fair was so suspicious of being scammed that they wouldn't buy anything at such a huge discount, just like that smug rich guy had known they would be. Fortunately, the mark was such a smart guy that he wouldn't let any worries about scammers with fake rings stop him from taking such an incredible deal.
Rhyming slang would have allowed the patterers to plot these scams in broad daylight, without any of the local bumpkins figuring out what they were talking about. In other words, it was basically the 19th century equivalent of carny speak, although hopefully with substantially less terms for "elephant diarrhea."
But There's A Lot Of Poetry To It As Well
It's important to note that our only real source for the early days of rhyming slang is Hotten, who is surprisingly snobby for a guy who made his fortune as the nastiest, most hardcore pornographer of the Victorian era. When not writing classics like Lady Bumtickler's Revels, a play in which Miss Belinda Flaybum relates the erotic spanking "an old friend of mine felt from the hand of a step-mother," Hotten found time to accost various patterers asking for examples of their slang. But while he focuses on the sleazier elements of the patterer's trade, there is evidence that rhyming slang had more poetic origins.
According to Hotten himself, many of the patterers also worked as street performers called "chaunters," singing humorous ballads in exchange for a few coins. These often satirized the latest political events, so the chaunters had to be masters at improvising new songs and poems on the spot. For example, when Benjamin Disraeli introduced a bill to reform the British political system, some unknown chaunter dashed out this absolute banger:
Oh dear, what a row and bother...
They are going to pass an act that you can't marry your mother;
Reform it is now all the rage.
You know old Ben Dizzy, the great first-rater,
In doing these things he's a great agitator...
Little boys under ten it's true on my life, sir.
Until they are twelve they must not smoke a pipe, sir....
If your husbands you catch out patroling, Or with other women you catch them strolling
And you think that out of your rights they are poling.
Give them the length of the bill.
Hotten himself informs us that the chaunters prided themselves on their speed: "When any dreadful murder...or frightful railroad accident has happened in a country district, three or four chaunters are generally on the spot in a day...vending and bawling 'A True and Faithful Account'. This rapid-fire poetry writing helps explain the imagination and literary knowledge required to come up with rhyming slang on the spot. It also explains why the original slang had so many references to politicians, none of which have held up.
Cockney Is Dying Out, So Now's As Good A Time As Ever To Pick It Up
These days, rhyming slang is in danger of going full Garfunkel and becoming a forgotten art. A 2012 survey found that most Londoners couldn't tell their bricks and mortar ("daughter") from their mother hubbard ("cupboard"). Another survey in 2015, found that Londoners under 25 had the most trouble figuring out terms like Ruby Murray ("curry"), possibly because the real Ruby Murray last had a hit in 1959. We guess these days young people are more interested in getting crunk to Rihanna than a knees-up round the old joanna. They'd rather cyberbully a TikTok user than have a barney down the battle cruiser. They'd rather get their scrotums tattooed on Azealia Banks's Instagram Live than not do that.
And with the young people uninterested, cockney has become a dead language, with hardly any new rhymes created. Which might be for the best, given the quality of the ones that are. As writer Jonathan Green told the Atlantic, the best rhyming slang had "an internal wit ... I mean, all right, it's stereotyped, but you know there's your Cockney bloke, you know, wheeling his barrow ... He talks about the trouble, the trouble and strife, because the wife gives him a hard time. When you arrive at 2015 and you have things like 'Posh and Becks' rhyming with sex, I for one think, why do I do my job? I don't want to know this." If your dialect is causing linguists to have a breakdown and retrain as plumbers then maybe it's time to pack away the lightning rod and admit it's dead.
But you'd better Adam and Eve that when God closes a Roger Moore he opens a Tommy Trinder. If rhyming slang is brown bread with the dustbin lids, then it can once again be used for its original purpose: scamming a bunch of Harry Huggins into buying heavily overpriced Highland flings. So use your loaf, pack some Sexton Blake tomfoolery into your old jam jar and hit the frog and toad. If you keep an eye out for the Sweeney, it'll be all bees and honey from here on out, me ol' mucker.
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