Cockney Rhyming Slang

An iconic vernacular

By Nigel T Espey

Photo:Group portrait of Lord Portman's tenants of Wilcove Place, Church Street, Lisson Grove. Conveys conditions under which many working-class families lived in London. 1915.

Group portrait of Lord Portman's tenants of Wilcove Place, Church Street, Lisson Grove. Conveys conditions under which many working-class families lived in London. 1915.

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Children dress as Cockney 'Pearly Kings and Queens'

Children dress as Cockney 'Pearly Kings and Queens'

The Cockney Accent

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be see this girl with her kerbstone English, the English that will keep her in the gutter?

-Professor Henry Higgins, upon meeting Eliza Doolittle in the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw

Cockney is a distinct London accent notable for being associated with the working class. Though what kind of person actually qualifies as Cockney differs depending on where you come from. Eliza Doolittle, for example, would be considered Cockney outside London, though Londoners themselves would not recognize someone from that far west as such.

Geographically, the Cockney accent is considered to be a by-product of the East-End, though an approximation of its origins cannot be accurately pinned down to a particular place or time. In the late 1500s, Chaucer refers to an ancestor of it in “A Reeve’s Tale,” called “cokenay,” which refers to people whose upbringings have made them effeminate. In 1600 it is referred to as a reproachful label for anyone born within earshot of the bells of the Church of St. Mary Le-Bow (which literally, other than the deaf, was anyone in London before the Great Fire when the bells were destroyed).

In recent history however, Cockney’s unofficial setting could be traced to all the boroughs of the East End, as well as East Ham, Stratford and a few others, most of which has been home to the working-class. It should be noted though, that the areas that cultivate Cockney in one decade might not do so in the next, as exhibited most recently in its declining presence in the East End.

In the play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle and her father Alfred exemplify the image and long-time perception of the Cockney working class image. Coming from Lisson Grove in Paddington, one of the poorest areas of London at the turn of the century, the Doolittles speak and behave in a way that sets them decidedly apart from the upper-class characters of the story. The resulting estrangement between either set of people illustrates the behaviors that were often cited at the time as fundamentally dividing the classes not only in terms of wealth, but in communication.

Today, public opinion of Cockney is more favorable, despite its continued use in movies and plays as a poor person’s, or even criminals’, brogue. But it took a long time for public to shift in Cockney’s favour. In 1909 the London County Council stated that "the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire." Except in select programs, the BBC did not broadcast in any accent other than Received Pronunciation, a policy that did not even begin to change until the 1970s. Class barriers as defined by accent began to break as Cockney-speaking figures such as actor Michael Caine became more and more prominent.

Nevertheless, popular culture has a history of taking advantage of Cockney’s implied lack of refinement, and continues to use it today. From Eliza Doolittle’s apparent need to be rid of it, to director Guy Ritchie’s use of it in gangster films, the Cockney accent has carried, and continues to carry, the burden of a gritty connotation.


Rhyming Slang

Rhyming slang is an extension of the Cockney accent, a syntax designed for its obscurity to outsiders. Supposedly it rose out of a need for people, in Victorian England, to discuss illicit activities without eavesdropping police understanding what was being discussed. Whether this is true or not seems almost inconsequential, as by now the slang has taken on a life of its own.

The basic structure of a slang term is fairly simple. Any given word can be assigned a reduplication (double word form) to replace it, and for no better reason than that the two rhyme. For example “believe” is transformed into “Adam-and-Eve,” “phone” into “dog-and-bone,” and “wife” into “trouble-and-strife.” Thus a sentence can be born that no-one, other than the slang-initiated, can very well understand:

 “My trouble-and-strife called from the left-in-the-lurch to tell me that she’s going out for a spot of Ruby Murray”

(My wife called from the church to tell me she was going out for a spot of curry).

To make things even more incomprehensible, sometimes the latter word of the reduplication is left out, with the initial word still having the same connotation. So “dog-and-bone” becomes “dog,” “trouble-and-strife becomes “trouble,” and “Ruby Murray” becomes “Ruby.” However this doesn’t apply to all reduplications as for instance, and for some reason, “left-in-the-lurch” will remain “left-in-the-lurch” without changing or cutting any pieces of itself off. Hence:

“My trouble called from the left-in-the-lurch to tell me that she’s going out for a spot of ruby”

Rhyming slang, though considered an extension of Cockney (hence, “Cockney rhyming slang”), did not begin as such. True, there is no kind of rhyming slang in London other than Cockney rhyming slang, but that the rhyming slang is Cockney is a matter of circumstance. People with Cockney accents merely adopted it and popularized their own derivations thereof, but only after it had been in circulation in England for quite some time.

Cockney rhyming slang as we know it today can be traced back to the 17th century. John Camden Hotten’s “Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words,” published in 1859, mentions that English rhyming slang first appeared “twelve or fifteen years ago” in Seven-Dials from the lips of salespeople, which at least means that it was first recorded having been there as early as the 1840s. Whether the adoption and re-appropriation of the idea for rhyming slang was intentional, is not entirely known, and has been a matter for speculation.

It is widely believed however, that rhyming slang’s modern incarnation developed in Seven Dials as a sort of criminal code. Rife with crime as Seven Dials was in 17th century, it has been posited that traders would communicate with each other using rhyming slang in order to discuss illicit activities within earshot of the police without the police actually knowing what on earth they were talking about. 

Needless to say, rhyming slang has evolved, and continues to evolve, organically. Words are adopted and dropped, with only a handful of them catching on. There are online databases of rhyming slang dictionaries, but arguably a rhyming slang term can only be said to be official when it has been used and re-used a number of times over the years.

Examples of rhyming slang: 




Adam and Eve


I don't Adam and Eve it!

Apples and Pears


Get yer Bacons up the Apples and Pears.

Army and Navy


Pass the Army and Navy.

Artful Dodger


I've got an Artful to help pay the rent.

Bacon and Eggs


You have got a lovely set of Bacons.

Barnet Fair


I have just got my Barnet chopped.

Brass bands


I shook him by the Brass.

Bread and Honey


I wish I had loads of Bread.

Butcher's Hook


Take a Butcher's at that!

Christian Slater


See ya Slater.

Cream Crackered

Knackered (tired/broken)

I'm Cream Crackered!

Currant Bun


The Currant Bun's hot today.

Danny Marr


I'll give you a lift in the Danny.

Dicky Bird


He hasn't said a Dicky bird in hours.

Dog and Bone


She's always on the Dog.

Donkey's Ears


Ain't seen you in Donkeys.



Ham'n'cheesy does it.

Jam Jar


Me Jam Jar's Cream Crackered.

Jimmy Riddle

Piddle (urinate)

I really need to go for a Jimmy.

Lemon Squeezy


It was Lemon, mate.

Loaf of Bread


He rarely using his loaf of bread.

Pete Tong


Everything's gone Pete Tong.

Plate of Meat


I was walking down the Plate...

Plates of Meat


I've been on me Plates all day.

Pork Pies (Porkie Pies)


He's always telling Porkies.

Rabbit & Pork


She Rabbits on a bit.
Let's Rabbit and Pork.

Richard the Third


That bloke's a complete Richard.

Sweeney Todd

Flying Squad (Police)

Here come the Sweeney.

Syrup of Figs


Check out the Syrup on 'is head.

Tea Leaf


Watch it, he's a bloody Tea Leaf.

Weasel & Stoat


Pull on yer Weasel.

Whistle and Flute


I just got a new Whistle.

Ruby Murray


Fancy a spot of ruby?

Hank Marvin


I’m Hank Marvin

This page was added by Nigel T Espey on 14/11/2012.

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