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Interesting Etymologies 27: Cockney Rhyming Slang!

"Hello again Word Lovers!" in this instalment we will hone in on a peculiar part of English, Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Slang: The word originates from the north of England and meant "territory" or "turf" especially travellers or tramps. The word developed to mean travelling salesmen and their language.

Cockney: was previously covered in our Easter episode which you can find here or listen to Charly cover it once more in this episode. In brief it is believed to be a pejorative which implies a person has become so disconnected from life in the country that they think eggs come from cockerels.

Scroll down for the podcast or youtube video of this episode

So how does Cockney Rhyming Slang work?

It uses a degree of extraction between words. We take a word that rhymes with the intended word but then use a word associated to the rhyming word rather than the word itself. Simple!

"Look at that woman's hair" becomes "Look at the woman's Barnet"

Barnet fayre or fair was a popular event in the Barnet are of London. Fair rhymes with hair but we do not say the word that rhymes. (Learn about the etymology of Barnet in the Premier League Football teams Interesting Etymology episode here)

"That man has huge plates"

Plates of meat = feet.

It is a little complicated, and one theory suggests it was meant to be complicated as it originated out of a sort of coded language used by criminals in order to communicate without police or bystanders understanding what they were saying.

It is also very unusual in etymological terms and even more so as it has permeated everyday language without people even realising it. A true secret code language.

When people complain they do not have any money they might say "I'm completely brassic"

This comes from an old treatment for injuries Boracic Lint. Lint rhymes with skint. This word in itself is shorthand slang for the expression "skinned" which means I have no money.

(Ed: We warned you that this slang language was all about levels of abstraction!)

Use your loaf = loaf of bread = head. This literally means "Think about it!"

Use you loaf in our Cockney Rhyming Slang quiz!

What do you think the following rhyming slang words are:

1)To refer to breasts as Bristols is a reference to the football team Bristol City, usually the plural Bristol Cities. What does this rhyme with?

2)To remark that someone is an unpleasant person you might call them a berk which is a reference to the "Berkshire hunt". What does that rhyme with?

3) To blow a raspberry is to put your tongue between your lips and blow, making a distinctive sound which sounds like a particular bodily function. This refers to a raspberry tart. What does that rhyme with?

Other rhyming slang expressions that are not commonly recognised as cockney rhyming slang

"Let's get down to brass tacks" - facts (unusual in that it uses the rhyming word in the expression)

"Put up your dukes" - Duke of Yorks. Fists were known as Forks so dukes - York - fork

(Ed abstraction upon abstraction)

Popular TV show "The Sweeney" was about the Metropolitan Police "Flying Squad". This is rhyming slang from Sweeney Todd, the Demon barber of Fleet street - Todd - Squad.

People in rhyming slang

Actual people can reach a level of fame and then be enshrined in language history as rhyming slang expressions. Notice that people's names seem to retain the rhyme unlike other forms, although not all the time:

"Taking the Mickey" : Mickey Bliss - Piss. : To make fun of someone. Like so much of Cockney Rhyming Slang it is actually rhyming with slang itself. To take the piss is to make fun of someone. This is believed to be a return to medieval English. "Piss Proud" was used to refer to a "Morning Glory", waking from the night sleep with an erection but also with an urge to urinate.

It is lost to the ravages of time as to who Mickey Bliss was.

Tony Cottee : A professional football player in the 1980s, also renowned for his good looks and party lifestyle. Rhyming Slang : Totty - "Available women"

Alan Whicker : A successful TV presenter became rhyming slang : knickers - underwear for ladies

Barnaby Rudge : A character from a Dickens novel (Ed: And the name of a pub in my hometown) rhyming slang : Judge - Self explanatory

Tommy Trinder : Music hall performer rhyming slang for : window. Obviously the accent is important on this one.(Listen to how Charly says it on the episode.

Mork and Mindy : American TV show rhyming slang : windy

Bob Hope: Stand up comedian rhyming slang: soap or dope (cannabis)

Vera Lynn : Wartime performer rhyming slang: Gin

(Learn more about the forces sweetheart Vera Lynn by reading our article on her life.)

You can of course develop your own with not too much difficulty

Britney Spears : American singer rhyming slang : Tears

More levels of abstraction

Falling on your arse is not something you do in London, you fall on your 'arris.

To understand why, we must defer to Anthony Burgess (author of a clockwork Orange and esteemed linguist, whose work features in two recent episodes of Interesting Etymologies Nadsat & Band names)

Arse with the long southern vowel rhymes with glass. Bottles were made of glass, so for a time the expression was "He's fallen on his bottle". The further level of abstraction was Aristotle for Bottle and with the rhyming component removed we are left with Arris.

Maybe that is just too complicated, you might want to give up and have a kitchen sink (drink). Or if you prefer more formal language a Dame Edna Everidge (beverage)

Some easier rhyming slang expressions

Here are some easier expressions you could use and are widely understood by native speakers. Some retain the rhyme or there is not so much abstraction:

Having a giraffe - Having a laugh

Telling Porkies - Pork Pies - Lies

Going for a sherbet - Sherbet dip a nip - Going for a quick drink

Ginger - Ginger Beer - Queer - to mean gay/homosexual (the origins of gay and queer are explored in IE26, click the link to learn more)

That is all for now me old chinas (china plate - mate) see you in the next instalment

Podcast audio programme:

Youtube video programme:

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.

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