Rhyming slang is a form of slang in which a word is replaced either by another word or phrase that rhymes with it, or by the first word of such a phrase, in which case the association of the original word and the slang rhyming phrase is not obvious to the uninitiated. For example, in Cockney speech "ball" means walk, for reasons that will be explained below. Rhyming slang exists to some extent in many languages. In English, rhyming slang is strongly associated with Cockney speech from the East End of London.
Overview of Cockney Slang
For beginners, traditional Cockney rhyming slang is more readily elucidated by an example than by a definition. Thus "He went for a ball up the frog" (He went for a walk up the road) comes from "He went for a BALL of chalk up the FROG and toad".
The origin of this linguistic phenomenon is uncertain. It remains a matter of speculation as to whether it was a linguistic accident or whether it was a cryptolect developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it may have been used to maintain a sense of community. It is possible that it was used in the marketplace to allow vendors to talk amongst themselves without customers knowing what they were saying. Another suggestion is that it may have been used by criminals (see thieves' cant) to confuse the police.
In recent years, the practice of dropping the rhyming word and using just the first word in the pair has become less common, as the slang has come to be used by people who do not understand, or choose not to obey, the traditional rules. The form in which the full phrase is used is now assumed by many people to be authentic Cockney rhyming slang. In terms of the original context, this modern form does little to serve the purpose of excluding outsiders.
The proliferation of rhyming slang allowed many of its traditional expressions to pass into common usage and the creation of new expressions (often ironically) is no longer restricted to Cockneys. Some substitutions have become relatively widespread in Britain, for example "to have a butcher's", which means to have a look, from "butcher's hook". Examples of this kind are often now used without awareness of their origins. Many English speakers are oblivious of the fact that the term "use your loaf" is derived from "loaf of bread", meaning head. This also holds for varieties of rhyming slang in other parts of the world: in the United States a common slang expression, "brass tacks", may be a rhyme for "the facts" and; the most common Australian slang term for an English person is "pommy", which is believed to have originated as rhyming slang for immigrant.
Some words are much less taboo than their etymology would suggest. Some popular terms have their origins in obscenity, like "berk" (often used to mean "foolish person") and "cobblers" (often used to mean "what you just said is rubbish"), are actually from Berkeley Hunt, meaning "cunt," and "cobbler's awls", meaning "balls", respectively.
The non-native speaker needs to be cautious in using rhyming slang to "fit in". The extent of the use of the slang is often exaggerated. In addition, since the original purpose was to encode or disguise speech from the comprehension of bystanders, terms that become too 'well-known' still have a tendency to lose actual currency fairly quickly, putting whatever usage the slang enjoys into a constant flux.
This style of rhyming has spread through many English-speaking countries, where the original phrases are supplemented by rhymes created to fit local needs. Creation of rhyming slang has become a word game for people of many classes and regions. The term 'Cockney' rhyming slang is generally applied to these expansions to indicate the rhyming style; though arguably the term only applies to phrases used in the East End of London. Similar formations do exist in other parts of the United Kingdom; for example, in the East Midlands, the local accent has formed "Derby Road", which rhymes with "cold": a conjunction that would not be possible in any other dialect of the UK.
All slang is rooted in the era of its origin, and therefore some of the meaning of its original etymology will be lost as time passes. In the 1980s for example, "Kerry Packered" meant "knackered"; in the 1990s, "Veras" referred to Rizla rolling papers ("Vera Lynns" = "skins" = Rizlas), as popularized in the song "Ebeneezer Goode" by The Shamen; and in 2004, the term "Britneys" was used to mean "beers" (or in Ireland to mean "queers") via the music artist "Britney Spears".
Also existent, the term "Posh & Becks" (referring to The Beckhams) instead of sex.
Rhyming slang in popular culture
- The British comedy series Mind Your Language (1977) features a character (caretaker Sid) who uses Cockney rhyming slang extensively. The show also had a whole episode dedicated to Cockney rhyming slang.
- Musical artists such as Audio Bullys, The Streets, and Chas & Dave regularly use rhyming slang in their songs. The UK punk scene of the late 70s brought along bands that glorified their working-class heritage: Sham 69 had a hit song "The Cockney Kids are Innocent"; often audience members would chant the words "If you're proud to be a Cockney, clap your hands" in between songs. The term "Chas and Dave" is also rhyming slang for "shave". Ian Dury who used rhyming slang throughout his career, even wrote a song for his solo debut New Boots and Panties! entitled Blackmail Man, an anti-racist song that utilized numerous derogatory rhyming slang for various ethnic minorities. The idiom even briefly made an appearance in the UK-based DJ reggae music of the 80s, in the hit "Cockney Translation" by Smiley Culture; this was followed a couple of years later by Domenick & Peter Metro's "Cockney and Yardie".
- Classic rock band Deep Purple used Cockney rhyming slang in the title for the song "A Gypsy's Kiss", on their Perfect Strangers record: the title actually means "A piss".
- Rhyming slang is often used in feature films, such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) (the United States DVD version comes with a glossary to assist the viewer), and on television (e.g. Minder, Only Fools and Horses, EastEnders) to lend authenticity to an East End setting. In To Sir With Love Sidney Poitier's students baffle him with their use of rhyming slang. Austin Powers in Goldmember features a dialogue between Powers and his father Nigel entirely in rhyming slang. The theme song to The Italian Job, composed by Quincy Jones, contains many rhyming slang expressions; the lyrics by Don Black amused and fascinated the composer.
- The film Green Street Hooligans (2005) features a brief explanation of the process by which rhyming slang is derived.
- The box office success Ocean's Eleven (2001) contains a piece of made-up rhyming slang, when a character uses "barney" to mean "trouble," and derives it from Barney Rubble. However, the use of "barney" to mean an argument or a fight far precedes the Flintstones cartoon character Barney Rubble though the origin is unclear. While the usage of "barney" to mean altercation may or may not have originally been rhyming slang, its usage in the movie in a way that is dependent on a 1960s era cartoon to get to the meaning of "trouble" is a good example of the ever-changing nature of speech.
- The film The Limey (1999) features Terrence Stamp as Wilson, a Cockney man recently released from prison who spices his conversations with rhyming slang:
- Wilson: Can't be too careful nowadays, y'know? Lot of tea leaves about, know what I mean?
- Warehouse Foreman: Excuse me?
- Wilson: "Tea leaves"... "thieves".
- Wilson: Eddy... yeah, he's me new china.
- Elaine: What?
- Wilson: "China plate"... "mate".
- In the film The Football Factory (2004) the character of Zebedee is berated for his occasional use of "that fucking muggy rhyming slang" by Billy Bright.
- Anthony Burgess uses rhyming slang as a part of the fictitious "Nadsat" dialect in his book A Clockwork Orange.
- In the Discworld novel Going Postal, rhyming slang is parodied with "Dimwell arrhythmic rhyming slang," which is like rhyming slang, but doesn't rhyme. An example of this is a wig being a prune, as wig doesn't, possibly by a complex set of unspoken rules, rhyme with "syrup of prunes." (In Britain a widely used example of real rhyming slang is syrup = syrup of fig(s) = wig).
- In the film Mr. Lucky (1943), Cary Grant's character teaches rhyming slang to his female companion. However the character describes this as Australian rhyming slang.
- On September 19, 2006, the comic strip Get Fuzzy introduced a new character: Mac Manc McManx, a Manx cat and cousin of Bucky Katt. McManx uses a speech pattern heavily based around Cockney rhyming slang and other London slang, despite being from Manchester. These speech patterns often make it almost impossible for the other characters, especially Satchel, to understand him.
- The title character in the China Miéville novel King Rat (1998 novel) uses Cockney rhyming slang in the vast majority of his dialogue.
- Ronnie Barker wrote a classic sketch for the comedy series The Two Ronnies in which a vicar delivers an entire sermon in rhyming slang, a large portion of which refers to a "small brown Richard the Third", which seems to mean turd, until he says that it flew back to its nest.
- Cockney rhyming slang is occasionally featured as a category on Jeopardy!.
- The Irish series of books and columns Ross O'Carroll-Kelly frequently uses variations on rhyming slang popular (or allegedly so) among members of the Dublin 4 population (for example, "battle cruiser" = "boozer").
- The Disney movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians features some Cockney rhyming slang by the two puppy thieves. Note that the rhyming word is also included, for example "A lovely pair of turtle doves".
- In Garth Ennis' The Boys, Billy Butcher refers to Americans as Septics, then explains "Septic Tank: Yank". In Aussie (Australian) slang, this is further shortened to "seppo(s)".
- On the London Weekend Television situation comedy from the 70s, No, Honestly, air-headed character Clara referred to one woman "with the big Birminghams." Her romantic partner, C.D., incredulous, asked her what she meant, not recognizing a valid rhyming slang reference (Birmingham City = Titty). Clara's explanation was, "Oh, C.D., it's rhyming slang - Birmingham town bosoms!" which, of course, neither rhymes nor is slang. This is a play on words from the real rhyming slang word for Titty which is "Bristols" derived from another English place beginning with B - Bristol City.
- In the new series of Doctor Who, in episode one of the 2nd season, "New Earth", originally broadcast on April 15 2006, Cassandra (who is 'inhabiting' Rose's body) asks Chip how Rose speaks. He replies, "Old earth Cockney." She then uses several examples of Cockney rhyming slang, including "I'm proceeding up the apples and pears" (stairs) and "I just don't Adam and Eve it" (believe it)
- Sex Pistol Steve Jones, on his Indie 103.1 radio program Jonesy's Jukebox, refers to advertising breaks as "visiting the Duke." (Duke of Kent = pay the rent.)
- The Kink's album Something Else By The Kinks features a song called "Harry Rag" (correct spelling is WRAGG - long deceased famous jockey), which is slang for a "fag" or cigarette. (Other rhyming slang for a cigarette is 'smoked trout' meaning 'snout' which is another term for tobacco, often 'paid' to informants, particularly inside Prisons). In the TV series 'The Sweeney', the character played by Denis Waterman would ask the character played by John Thaw "How we doin' for snout Guv?" meaning "how are we doing for cigarettes boss?"
- In most versions of the game Dungeons and Dragons, the language 'thieves tongue' by description uses rhyming slang.
- In the book The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle by William Arden, a man left a riddle in his will containing clues in Cockney rhyming slang directing his heirs to his treasure.
- In episode 5 of Alan Partridge Knowing Me Knowing You series, Alan uses several cockney rhyming terms when interviewing character Terry Norton and uses several well known terms such as Dog and bone (phone) and Bowler Hat (chat). Alan uses his own new term of Antique Edwardian Tea Chest to describe the term Guest when first introducing Terry.
- porkies = pork pies = lies
- apples = apples and pears = stairs
- Barnet = Barnet Fair = hair
- brass = brass cart = "tart" = prostitute
- bristols = Bristol Cities = titties = breasts
- bubble = bubble bath = laugh
- dog = dog and bone = telephone
- jam = jam jar = car
- water = water bottle = throttle
- china = china plate = mate (friend)
- pony = pony and trap = crap (to defecate or meaning something is rubbish = not very good)
- saucepan = saucepan lid = kid
- frog = frog and toad = road
- Raspberry Tart = fart (to break wind)
- Rosie = Rosy Lee = tea/gypsy
- Ruby = Ruby Murray = Curry
- J. Arthur = J. Arthur Rank = bank/wank (masturbate)
- Septic = Septic Tank = Yank (American)
- trouble = trouble and strife = wife (if she is listening: Duchess of Fife)
- Tom = Tom Tit = shit (to defecate or meaning something is rubbish = not very good)
- tom = tomfoolery = jewelery
- skin = skin and blister = sister
- plates = plates of meat = feet
- boat = boat race = face
- Butcher's = Butcher's hook= Look
- whistle = whistle and flute = suit
- Ayto, John. 2002. The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. Oxford University Press.
- Franklyn, Julian. 1960. A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. Routledge.
- Green, Jonathon. 2000. Cassell's Rhyming Slang. Cassell.
- Lillo, Antonio (full name, Antonio Lillo Buades). 1996. "Drinking and Drug-Addiction Terms in Rhyming Slang". In Comments on Etymology 25 (6): pp. 1-23.
- Lillo, Antonio. 1998. "Origin of Cockney Slang Dicky Dirt". In Comments on Etymology 27 (8): pp. 16-20.
- Lillo, Antonio. 1999. "More on Sausage and Mash 'Cash'". In Gerald L. Cohen and Barry Popik (eds.), Studies in Slang. Part VI. Peter Lang, pp. 87-89.
- Lillo, Antonio. 2000. "Bees, Nelsons, and Sterling Denominations: A Brief Look at Cockney Slang and Coinage". In Journal of English Linguistics 28 (2): pp. 145-172.
- Lillo, Antonio. 2001. "The Rhyming Slang of the Junkie". In English Today 17 (2): pp. 39-45.
- Lillo, Antonio. 2001. "From Alsatian Dog to Wooden Shoe: Linguistic Xenophobia in Rhyming Slang". In English Studies 82 (4): pp. 336-348.
- Lillo, Antonio. 2004. "A Wee Keek at Scottish Rhyming Slang". In Scottish Language 23: pp. 93-115.
- Lillo, Antonio. 2004. "Exploring Rhyming Slang in Ireland". In English World-Wide 25 (2): pp. 273-285.
- Lillo, Antonio. 2006. "Cut-down Puns". In English Today 22 (1): pp. 36-44.