Over the centuries, the cockney accent has become synonymous with working-class London. Some examples of the accent include replacing the “th” sound in words such as “think” with an F sound. Likewise the H sound in words such as “hospital” or “holiday” will be dropped entirely, so that the words are instead pronounced as “ospital” or “oliday”. The accent has grown into a badge of pride for its speakers, for whom it represents their hard-working and down-to-earth nature. This open and friendly attitude is best epitomised by the cockney greeting “Awite mate!” (How are you, friend?). But there’s more to cockney than the accent of course…
Let’s say you’re walking down the street in East London, and a random stranger approaches you asking the following question: ‘Fancy a Britney in the nuclear, me old china?’ He continues chatting away quite happily about hail and rain, frogs and toads, apples and pears… You just smile and nod politely, with no idea what he’s talking about. The next thing you know, you’re standing by yourself, clutching a box of broken second-hand crockery, £20 lighter. What just happened? Cockney rhyming slang, that’s what.
The concept of rhyming slang is, as you might suspect, that everything rhymes with what it actually means. “Nuclear sub” means “pub”; for example. And, since the mid-twentieth century, pop culture icons have also become part of cockney rhyming slang, so “Britney” is a reference to “Britney Spears” (obviously), which rhymes with “beers” – so your new East London buddy wasn’t asking if you were up for some cheeky karaoke inside military transportation, he was rather enquiring if you fancied having a pint down the pub. And “old china”? It’s nothing to do with the crockery, instead referring to “china plate” which stands for “mate”.
Where Does Rhyming Slang Come From?
It all started in the mid-nineteenth century in East London, where it was first used by travelling salesmen who flogged their wares on the streets. There are several theories as to why they decided to speak in such a way. Perhaps, it was a game to catch the attention of passers-by and outsell the competition? A different theory, however, is that the salesmen developed it as a means to confuse their customers, leaving them unsure of what they were saying and more likely to part with their cash in a befuddled state. Rumour has it that this same trick also worked when they were confronted by the police for rather more illicit activities.
Nowadays, finding a Londoner speaking only in rhyming slang is rare indeed, but many Londoners will often unthinkingly use instances of cockney rhyming slang, even if their general speech is no longer shaped by the dialect.
How To Use Proper Cockney Rhyming Slang
Many people attempting the cockney dialect make the mistake of thinking that if they simply throw in an expression such as “apples and pears” into a sentence, then they will be able to seamlessly blend into an East End pub. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth! If you really want to cut the mustard with a real cockney speaker, then you need to learn the art of employing proper cockney rhyming slang. The secret? When you use these rhymes within a sentence, you need only say the first word of the rhyme! Sound complicated? Check out these examples to see just how you can use cockney correctly.
- Cockney: “I want to rabbit with you in the nuclear.”
- Standard English: “I want to talk with you in the pub.”
Unlock the rhyme: Rabbit (and pork) = Talk. Nuclear (sub) = Pub.
- Cockney: “Fancy a butcher’s?”
- Standard English: “Want to take a look?”
Unlock the rhyme: Butcher’s (hook) = Look.
- Cockney: “Babbel rang me on the dog.”
- Standard English: “Babbel rang me on the phone.”
Unlock the rhyme: Dog (and bone) = Phone.
Who Could Be My Cockney Hero?
The next time you visit London, keep your ears peeled, and you’ll soon discover that cockney-accented speech and bonafide usage of cockney rhyming slang still abound in the capital. If, however, you fancy brushing up on your cockney from home, then you can’t go wrong with modelling your cockney accent on perhaps the most famous cockney of them all – Michael Caine. If on the other hand you wanted an example of how the cockney dialect has influenced the modern London accent, then check out Jason Statham’s performance in the film Snatch.