Rhyming slang is a form of word construction in the English language. It is especially prevalent amongst Cockneys, a term used to describe a person from the East End of London, especially if they are born within earshot of Bow Bells. Over in the United States, I understand especially with the criminal underworld of the West Coast between 1880 and 1920, rhyming slang has sometimes been known as ‘Australian slang’. The construction of rhyming slang involves replacing a common word with a phrase of two or more words, the last of which rhymes with the original word which is then often omitted from the end of the phrase. The rhyming word is thereafter implied, making the origin and meaning of the phrase elusive to listeners not in the know. An example of rhyming slang based on sound is the Cockney ‘tea leaf’, meaning thief. An alternative is phono-semantic rhyming slang, for example the Cockney ‘sorrowful tale’, for (three months in) jail), in which case the person coining the slang term sees a semantic link, sometimes jocular, between the Cockney expression and its referent. The use of rhyming slang has spread beyond Cockney and some examples are to be found in mainstream British English, though many users may be unaware of the origin of those words. For example the expression ‘blowing a raspberry’ comes from ‘raspberry tart’ for ‘fart’. Another example is ‘berk’, a mild pejorative used widely across the UK and not usually considered particularly offensive, although the origin lies in a contraction of ‘Berkeley Hunt’, as the rhyme for the significantly more offensive word. Another example is to “have a butcher’s” for to have a look, from “butcher’s hook”. Most of the words changed by this process are nouns, but a few are adjectival, e.g., “bales” of cotton (rotten), or the adjectival phrase “on one’s tod” for “on one’s own”, apparently after Tod Sloan, a famous jockey. Historically, as mentioned rhyming slang is believed to have originated in the mid-nineteenth century in the East End of London, with several sources suggesting some time in the 1840s. It remains a matter of speculation exactly how rhyming slang originated, for example, as a linguistic game among friends or as a ‘secret’ language developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it may also have been used to maintain a sense of community, or to allow traders to talk amongst themselves in marketplaces to facilitate collusion, without customers knowing what they were saying, or by criminals to confuse police. One academic has even suggested that rhyming slang was invented by Irish immigrants to London, so the English wouldn’t understand what they were talking about! Many examples of rhyming slang are based on locations in London, such as Peckham Rye, for ‘tie’ which dates from the late nineteenth century;. Then there is Hampstead Heath, for ‘teeth’, which was first recorded in 1887, and Barnet Fair (usually shortened to Barnet), for ‘hair’ which dates from the 1850s. In the twentieth century, rhyming slang began to be based on the names of celebrities, for example Gregory Peck (cheque), Alan Whicker, as “Alan Whickers (knickers), Max Miller ( [pillow, but pronounced by Cockneys as ‘pilla’), Britney Spears (beers), Scooby-Doo (clue). There are more, and many examples have passed into common usage. Some substitutions have become relatively widespread in England in their contracted form. “To have a butcher’s”, meaning to have a look, originates from “butcher’s hook”, an S-shaped hook used by butchers to hang up meat, and dates from the late nineteenth century but has existed independently in general use from around the 1930s simply as “butchers”. Similarly, “use your loaf”, meaning “use your head”, derives from “loaf of bread” and also dates from the late nineteenth century but came into independent use in the 1930s. Conversely some uses have lapsed, or been usurped (“Hounslow Heath” for teeth, was replaced by “Hampsteads” from the heath of the same name, starting c.1887). In some cases, false etymologies exist. For example, the term “barney” has been used to mean an altercation or fight since the late nineteenth century, although without a clear derivation. Rhyming slang is used mainly in London in England but can to some degree be understood across the country. There are some constructions, however, which rely on particular regional accents for the rhymes to work. For instance, the term “Charing Cross“ (in London), used to mean “horse” since the mid-nineteenth century, does not work for a speaker without the accent common in London at that time but not so much nowadays. A similar example is “Joanna” meaning “piano”, which is based on the pronunciation of “piano” as “pianna”. Unique formations also exist in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as in the East Midlands, where the local accent has formed “Derby Road”, which rhymes with “cold”.
Outside of the UK, rhyming slang is used in many English-speaking countries, with local variations. For example, in Australian slang, the term for an English person is “pommy“, which has been proposed as a rhyme on “pomegranate”, pronounced “Pummy Grant”, which rhymed with “immigrant”. Rhyming slang is continually evolving, and new phrases are introduced all the time; new personalities replace old ones—pop culture introduces new words, as in “I haven’t a Scooby” (from Scooby Doo, the eponymous cartoon dog of the cartoon series) meaning “I haven’t a clue”. Rhyming slang is often used as a substitute for words regarded as taboo, often to the extent that the association with the taboo word becomes unknown over time. For example “Bristol Cities” (contracted to ‘Bristols’) is well-known. “Taking the Mick” or “taking the Mickey” is thought to be a rhyming slang form of “taking the p*ss“, where “Mick” came from “Mickey Bliss”. Rhyming slang has also been widely used in popular culture including film, television, music, literature, sport and degree classification.
In the British undergraduate degree classification system a first class honours degree is known as a “Geoff Hurst“. An upper second class degree (a.k.a. a “2:1”) is called an “Attila the Hun“, and a lower second class (“2:2”) as a “Desmond Tutu“, whilst a third class degree is known as a “Thora Hird”.
There is also rhyming slang used in film and television. Slang had a resurgence of popular interest in Britain beginning in the 1970s, resulting from its use in a number of London-based television programmes. It was also featured in an episode of ‘The Good Life’, where Tom and Barbara purchase a wood-burning range from a junk trader called Sam, who litters his language with phoney slang in hopes of getting higher payment. He comes up with a fake story as to the origin of Cockney rhyming slang and is caught out rather quickly, whilst in a different tv series, a person explains Cockney rhyming slang in that “whistle and flute” means “suit”, “apples and pears” means “stairs” and “plates of meat” means “feet”. In music too it has been used, for example the 1967 Kinks song ‘Harry Rag’ was based on the usage of the name Harry Wragg as rhyming slang for “fag”, i.e. a cigarette. Another contributor was Lonnie Donegan, who had a song called “My Old Man’s a Dustman”. In it he says his father has trouble putting on his boots “He’s got such a job to pull them up that he calls them daisy roots”. In modern literature, Cockney rhyming slang is used frequently in the novels and short stories of Kim Newman, for instance in the short story collections “The Man from the Diogenes Club” (2006) and “Secret Files of the Diogenes Club” (2007), where it is explained at the end of each book. Even in sport it can be found, for example in Scottish football, a number of clubs have nicknames taken from rhyming slang. Partick Thistle are known as the “Harry Rags”, which is taken from the rhyming slang of their ‘official’ nickname “the Jags”, whilst Rangers are known as the “Teddy Bears”, which comes from the rhyming slang for “the Gers”, a shortened version of Ran-gers. Hibernian are also referred to as “The Cabbage” which comes from Cabbage and Ribs being the rhyming slang for Hibs. It is also found in rugby league, where “meat pie” is used for try. There are many more, though as has been said some have fallen out of use – but they are still widely heard in Cockney London!
This week… another film quote I like.
“I know engineers; they love to change things…”
~ Dr Leonard McCoy, Star Trek.
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