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The Mysteries of Cockney Rhyming Slang explained

Wednesday, 06 June 2018
Woman holding an apple and a pear Apples and pears: a Cockney phrase for 'stairs' This image by pexels.com from Pixabay.com is licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

The origins and use of Cockney rhyming slang. Understand this mysterious language with our advanced reading comprehension exercise with questions and answers 

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Reading comprehension - Advanced level

Cockney rhyming slang is a unique type of vernacular which many say was first used by Cockneys in the East End of London in order to prevent the police or other strangers understanding their conversations. However, other researchers think that it developed as a simple language game which brought fun into everyday interactions and helped to build a sense of community among the people of the East End. It was invented in London in the 1840s and used on the streets among market traders and costermongers (the local street sellers with handcarts of fruit and vegetables).  

So how does it work? Cockney rhyming slang is based on taking a two-word expression which rhymes with the desired word and then using it as a substitute. For example, saying 'apples and pears' instead of 'stairs' or' butcher's hook' instead of 'look'. However, it is then further complicated by missing out the part of the expression which actually rhymes.  In this way, 'having a look' becomes simply 'having a butcher's'.  However, the rhyming word is not always omitted , so there is sometimes more of a clue to the actual meaning.  Very often there is irony or humour in the chosen slang, for example the use of 'trouble and strife' to indicate the wife or 'Fat Boy Slim' to refer to the gym.  

Such is the appeal of  this humorous secret language  that it has now become widely understood in London and all over Britain. This is mainly thanks to classic television comedy programmes set in the East End of London, such as 'Only Fools and Horses' or 'Porridge'. The famous comedy sketch by The Two Ronnies  entitled 'Rhyming Slang Sermon'  also continues to give great insight into how rhyming slang  can be woven into otherwise mundane dialogue! In addition,  the long-running BBC soap 'Eastenders'  is another colourful source providing examples of the East End vernacular. However, Cockney rhyming slang is not just a fascination of the British - it has also attracted much interest from around the world as other nationalities struggle to comprehend the hidden meanings of the slang expressions. 

To whet your appetite for learning Cockney rhyming slang, here are some commonly-used phrases, together with examples of usage.

1.  Dog and bone - 'phone':  "I heard your boss was trying to speak to you on the dog and bone!"

2.  Mince pies - 'eyes': "Look carefully!  Use your mince pies!"

3.  Bees and honey - 'money': "I've left my bees and honey in the other wallet!"

4.  Kick and prance - 'dance':  "Are you ready to kick and prance? We are having a party!"

5.  Duke of Kent - 'rent':  "This house is too expensive.  I can't afford the Duke of Kent!"

6.  Lady Godiva - 'fiver' (£5 note): "Do you like my hair cut?  It only cost me a Lady Godiva!" 

7.  Loop the loop - 'soup':  " A steaming bowl of loop the loop is my favourite winter dish!"

8.  Plates of meat - 'feet':  "I walked so far!  I must rest my plates of meat!"

9.  Bricks and mortar - 'daughter':  "She looks like him.  She must be the bricks and mortar!"

10. Adam and Eve - 'believe':  "We've just become millionaires! Would you Adam and Eve it!"

But who are Cockneys and is their language still current? Originally, it was said that a true Cockney was someone who lived within the sound of Bow Bells (the church bells in the tower of  St. Mary-le-Bow Church in the area called Cheapside, in London).  However, these days the word Cockney is often applied to many other inhabitants  living in the South East of England, as long as they have the Cockney accent.  Far from being a dead language,  Cockney rhyming slang continues to develop and thrive, with many new expressions finding their way into daily speech.   However, nowadays almost all the new slang is based on the names of celebrities or famous people.  A typical example would be the use of racing driver 'Ayrton Senna' for 'tenner' (a British ten pound note)  or 'Pete Tong' for 'wrong'.  (Pete Tong is a famous British radio DJ, known as the global ambassador of dance music.) Nevertheless, there is occasional deviation from this as demonstrated by the recent uptake of the phrase 'wind and kite' meaning  'website'.  Some expressions have even been taken into more mainstream language in Britain.  For example, the phrase to 'use your loaf' (meaning to use your brains) came originally from the Cockney rhyming slang 'loaf of bread' which signified head.

Internet  Sources: 

Londontopia: Language: Top 100 Cockney Rhyming Slang Words and Phrases. Available from: https://londontopia.net/londonism/fun-london/language-top-100-cockney-rhyming-slang-words-and-phrases {31/05/2018}

Cockney Rhyming  Slang: What is Cockney Rhyming Slang? Available from: http://www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk/blog/category/cockney-slang-origins/  {31/05/2018}

Kaplan International: Top Ten 'must know' Cockney Rhyming  Slang Phrases.  Available from: https://www.kaplaninternational.com/blog/top-ten-must-know-cockney-rhyming-slang-phrases {31/05/2018}



Task A - Cockney Rhyming Slang 'translation' exercise

Re-write this paragraph in standard English by replacing the slang underlined:

"Would you Adam 'n Eve it!  I'm rubbing my mince pies! We've only gone and won the lottery! This time it's not just a Lady Godiva! I think we should celebrate with a kick and a prance at the rub-a-dub. We'll have a slap-up meal, starting with some loop the loop, and then the trouble 'n strife and  the bricks 'n mortar can wear out their plates on the dance floor. I'll get on the dog and book the best venue.  It doesn't matter about the Duke of Kent.  We've got plenty of bees! .  I'll even buy myself a shiny new pair of dinky dos and a smart dicky dirt with a Peckham Rye to match.   "   


Task B - The Mysteries of Cockney Rhyming Slang explained: Comprehension Questions

1. Is it true that the origins of Cockney rhyming  slang lie in the early 19th Century?

2. Explain briefly how Cockney rhyming  slang phrases are created.

3. What are used in most new additions to Cockney rhyming slang?

4.  Explain why the Cockney rhyming  slang phrase meaning incorrect is 'Pete Tong'.

5.  When a Cockney refers to his 'plates' what does he mean?

6.  Which comedy sketch by The Two Ronnies provides a rich example of Cockney rhyming slang?

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published in Graded Reading 2018
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Last modified on Saturday, 09 June 2018 18:42