A History of Cockney Rhyming Slang

Updated: Mar 31

Cockney rhyming slang originated in the east end of London in the 1840s and has since spread throughout London and Britain.

Market traders, costermongers and street hawkers invented the language in order to communicate with each other. It was first used as a cant, that is, slang used to disguise what was being said from passers-by.

A true Cockney is someone born within the sound of Bow Bells at St Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside, London. Nowadays, the term Cockney is more loosely applied to anyone with an accent from the surrounding area.

Usually, the phrase rhymes with the original word that it represents, for example ‘butcher’s hook’ and ‘look’. However, often, the rhyming part is later discarded, so the phrase becomes simply ‘butcher’s’.

Often there is a sarcastic or ironic undertone to the rhyme. For example, ‘fat boy slim’ is cockney rhyming slang for ‘gym’.

Although cockney rhyming slang is definitely not used as often today as it was in the past, there are still some words and phrases that pervade English vernacular.

Cockney rhyming slang is also preserved through films and television shows. In British television in the 1970s and 1980s, shows such as ‘Porridge’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’ have featured cockney rhyming slang extensively. The popular characters and famous television moments have done much to retain cockney rhyming slang in public memory.

Nowadays, it’s not often that new cockney rhyming slang phrases are invented. There are a few exceptions, however, such as the use of the names of famous celebrities, or ‘wind and kite’ for website.

Cockney rhyming slang is certainly an oddity of the English language, and it has received much fame and infamy for its peculiarity.

Here are a few common examples. Do you recognise any?

‘Apples and pears’ meaning ‘stairs’.

‘Bees and honey’ meaning ‘money’.

‘Box of toys’ meaning ‘noise’.

‘Cut and carried’ meaning ‘married’.

‘Dustbin lids’ meaning ‘kids’.

‘Weep and wail’ meaning ‘a tale’.

‘Yet to be’ meaning ‘free’.

Next time you’re trying to communicate secretively with your friends, why not try to integrate some of these phrases into your conversation? Your parents or teacher are certainly unlikely to recognise the old-fashioned English slang!


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