Fun with Words

Using Your Loaf with Cockney Rhyming Slang

Cockney rhyming slang, said to be London’s very own secret language, is wacky and wholly enjoyable, says Roopa Banerjee

Cockney rhyming slang is an English dialect which originated in central London over 200 years ago, and is now a quirky touristy attraction of the city. 

But who is a cockney? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cockney is “one who has been born within the sound of Bow bells, a reference not, as often believed, to the eastern suburb of Bow, but to the church of Saint Mary le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London.” 

The ‘grammar’ of cockney rhyming slang is to replace the word to be obscured with the first word of a phrase that rhymes with it. For instance, ‘rarely using his loaf of bread’ referred to someone not using his head, the rhyme being between ‘bread’ and ‘head’. To make understanding more difficult, the phrase is often used by omitting the rhyming word and said as ‘rarely using his loaf’. 

Naturally, someone unfamiliar with this wordplay would find it nearly impossible to understand what’s being said. Similarly, ‘apple and pairs’ is used for stairs. ‘Rabbit and pork’ means talk. ‘Adam and Eve’ is used for believe. ‘Can you Adam and Eve it’ is cockney slang for ‘Can you believe it’. ‘Bees and honey’ refers to money while ‘brown bread’ is slang for dead. ‘Custard and jelly’ to the telly (television), while ‘skin and blister’ means sister.

You may feel much of this is Daffadown dilly (silly)!

Origins

According to linguist John Ayto’s Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, this dialect originated in the East End of London during the first half of the 19th century. The website www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk says that it was “invented in London in the 1840s by market traders, costermongers (sellers of fruit and vegetables from handcarts) and street hawkers”. Until the late 20th century, rhyming slang was also common in Australia, probably due to the formative influence of cockney on Australian English.

Over the years, rhyming slang spread to other parts of the United Kingdom and countries where English is spoken. The slang was also reportedly used as a code language among thieves. Presumably, the idea was to obscure the meaning just enough to confuse potential eavesdroppers. 

Today, we find remnants of cockney rhyming slang only in England, especially in London. Moreover much of it has now been absorbed into conversational English. 

Quiz

Here is a Cockney rhyming quiz for you!

1. If a friend says, ‘ I’m going down the apples’, what does she mean?
2. If your colleague says, ‘You have a nice uncle’, what is she referring to?
3. If a friend says, ‘I like your barnet’, what is he really saying?
4. If your mum says to ‘Try the give and take’, what is she offering you?
5. If someone says, ‘Have a butchers at that’, what are they saying?
6. If you hear a pal say, ‘Check out my new pair of daisy roots’, what does she mean?

Answers

1. Stairs. Apple and pears means stairs
2. Shirt. Uncle Bert refers to shirt.
3. Hair. Barnet fair is rhyming slang for hair.
4. Cake.
5. Look. Butcher’s hook rhymes with Look.
6. Boots.