When you think “English accent,” maybe you immediately imagine someone who speaks as poshly as the royal family. This accent — called “Received Pronunciation” — is only one of several. Even within the city of London, you can hear all kinds of inflections, including another one of the most famous English accents: Cockney. Even if you’ve never heard of it before, you’ve definitely heard it. Americans might be most familiar with the accent as it was performed by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. But Van Dyke was so roundly criticized for his terrible Cockney that the actor apologized for it 50 years later. (For authentic Cockney, listen to Michael Caine.) Yet beyond the chimney sweep stereotype, Cockney is most famous for a peculiar feature: Cockney rhyming slang.
Rhyming slang, for the uninitiated, can be incredibly confusing. At its core, all it does is take one concept and replace it with another. For example, you start with the concept of stairs, which you might call “steps and stairs.” Then, you find the rhyming phrase “apples and pears.” And “apples and pears” is quite a mouthful, so you would shorten it just to “apples.” And just like that, you can go around saying “The loo is up the apples” to say that the bathroom is on the second floor.
If this all sounds needlessly complicated, that’s because it is! But it’s important to remember that like any slang, treating it as an oddity would be a mistake. This isn’t some silly linguistic quirk; it’s a feature of language spoken by real people.
Where Does Cockney Come From?
The “where” of Cockney rhyming slang is pretty easy to answer. The Cockney accent is local to the East End of London, which is historically a more working-class area of the city. While the boundaries of the East End are a bit hazy, there is one theory that to identify as Cockney, you have to be “born within the sound of Bow Bells.” This refers to the bells inside the church of St. Mary-le-Bow. While fanciful, the radius of the Bow Bells’ clang has shrunk due to noise pollution, while the boundaries of “Cockney” have extended.
We also know the “when” of rhyming slang. It’s generally agreed that it first started to appear in the 19th century, with some estimates placing its origin in the 1840s.
The “why” of rhyming slang is a bit tougher. It generally doesn’t make sense to add words to a language that make it harder to understand. But there are a few theories as to why this phenomenon would occur.
Rhyming slang could be a cryptolect, which is a language that is purposefully impenetrable to outsiders. One possibility is that the slang was created by thieves and outlaws who wanted to evade the prying eyes (or ears) of others. It doesn’t necessarily need to relate to crime, though; some think it was just Cockneys trying to confuse outsiders. Being part of an in-group is historically a driving force in language change.
Another option is that rhyming slang was created by costermongers, who were the people who sold goods on the street. They may have made a game out of creating rhyming slang, and used it to charm passersby (or, less charitably, used it to confuse passersby into spending more money than they meant to). The fact so many examples of Cockney slang have to do with money is good evidence of this. It’s not all money, though; a lot of Cockney slang has to do with genitalia and bodily functions.
No matter the reason it exists, being able to effect a proper Cockney accent has for decades been considered a certain kind of “cool.” And there’s a penalty if you get it wrong: people who try but fail to sound Cockney are said to be speaking “Mockney.” If you’re going to try out some Cockney rhyming slang, be warned that you might rub people the wrong way.
A Guide To Cockney Rhyming Slang
The use of Cockney rhyming slang has definitely been in decline for the past several decades as the media and internet homogenizes accents. But it’s not entirely gone, and there are Cockney phrases that are in common use among certain people today. And while we mentioned that the concept of Cockney rhyming slang traces back to the 19th century, many of these terms came about during and after World War II.
While the following list isn’t comprehensive, here are some of the better-known phrases in Cockney rhyming slang. There are some theories as to why certain phrases were chosen for different words, but trying to ascribe meaning to all of them is essentially impossible. The shortest explanation is probably “because it rhymes.”
Note: While the full rhyming phrases are often multiple words, you usually only say the first part of them when you’re using them in a sentence.
Original Word: Stairs
Rhyming Slang: Apples and pears
Example: “Go up the apples and take a left.”
Original Word: Piss (as in “taking the piss,” meaning to mock someone)
Rhyming Slang: taking the Mickey Bliss
Example: “Were you taking the Mick out of Sammy the other day?”
Original Word: Pissed (as in drunk)
Rhyming Slang: Brahms and Liszt
Example: “He got Brahmsed after two drinks.”
Original Word: Money
Rhyming Slang: Bees and honey
Example: “I went to the bank for bees and honey.”
Original Word: Wife
Rhyming Slang: Trouble and strife
Example: “Got in an argument with the trouble last night.”
Note: Yes, this one’s sexist.
Original Word: Look
Rhyming Slang: Butcher’s hook
Example: Have a butcher’s!
Original Word: Phone
Rhyming Slang: Dog and bone
Example: “Ring me on the dog when you get a chance.”
Original Word: Talk
Rhyming Slang: Rabbit and pork
Example: “Will you have time to rabbit tomorrow?”
Note: You have to have a British accent to make “talk” and “pork” rhyme.
Original Word: Beers
Rhyming Slang: Britney Spears
Example: “Fancy a couple Britneys tonight?”
Original Word: Gin
Rhyming Slang: Vera Lynn
Example: “I’ll take a shot of Vera.”
Note: Vera Lynn, the singer most famous for “We’ll Meet Again,” sued a gin company and won in 2019 (at the age of 102!) after it tried to trademark her name. “Vera” can also refer to cigarette skin, as in rolling papers.
Original Word: Sweetheart
Rhyming Slang: Treacle tart
Example: “Have you met my treacle?”
Original Word: Fart
Rhyming Slang: Raspberry tart
Example: “He blew a raspberry.”
Note: “Blowing raspberries” is a good example of Cockney slang that has spread far beyond the East End in the English language.
Original Word: Yank (as in an American)
Rhyming Slang: Septic tank
Example: “The septics across the pond have another terrible election on their hands.”
Original Word: Feet
Rhyming Slang: Plates of meat
Example: “I’ve been on my plates all day.”
Original Word: Arse
Rhyming Slang: Khyber Pass
Example: “Get your Khyber outta here!”
Note: This is another rhyme where you need the r-less Cockney accent to really make it work.
Original Word: Laugh
Rhyming Slang: Turkish bath
Example: “Are you having a Turkish, mate?”
Note: This rhyme highlights another feature of the Cockney accent, in which the “th” sounds a lot like an “f.”
Original Word: Fiver (As in a five-pound note)
Rhyming Slang: Lady Godiva
Example: “Got a Godiva on you?”
Original Word: Mate
Rhyming Slang: China plate
Example: “You alright, me old china?”
Original Word: Eyes
Rhyming Slang: Mince pies
Example: “Go have a butcher’s with your mincers.”