Rhyming slang is a form of phrase construction in the English language that is especially prevalent in dialectal English from the East End of London; hence the alternative name, Cockney rhyming slang. The construction involves replacing a common word with a rhyming phrase of two or three words and then, in almost all cases, omitting the secondary rhyming word (which is thereafter implied), in a process called hemiteleia, making the origin and meaning of the phrase elusive to listeners not in the know.
One example is replacing the word "stairs" with the rhyming phrase "apples and pears". Following the pattern of omission, "and pears" is dropped, thus the spoken phrase "I'm going up the apples" means "I'm going up the stairs".
In similar fashion, "telephone" is replaced by "dog" (= 'dog-and-bone'); "wife" by "trouble" (= 'trouble-and-strife'); "eyes" by "mincers" (= 'mince pies'); "wig" by "syrup" (= 'syrup of figs') and "feet" by "plates" (= 'plates of meat'). Thus a construction of the following type could conceivably arise: "It nearly knocked me off me plates—he was wearing a syrup! So I ran up the apples, got straight on the dog to me trouble and said I couldn't believe me mincers."
In some examples the meaning is further obscured by adding a second iteration of rhyme and truncation to the original rhymed phrase. For example, the word "Aris" is often used to indicate the buttocks. This is the result of a double rhyme, starting with the original rough synonym "arse", which is rhymed with "bottle and glass", leading to "bottle". "Bottle" was then rhymed with "Aristotle" and truncated to "Aris".
The use of rhyming slang has spread beyond the purely dialectal and some examples are to be found in the mainstream British English lexicon and internationally, although many users may be unaware of the origin of those words. One example is "berk", a mild pejorative widely used across the UK and not usually considered particularly offensive, although the origin lies in a contraction of "Berkeley Hunt", as the rhyme for the significantly more offensive "cunt". Another example is to "have a butcher's" for to have a look, from "butcher's hook".
Most of the words changed by this process are nouns. A few are adjectival e.g. 'bales' (of cotton = rotten), or the adjectival phrase 'on one's tod' = 'on one's own (Tod Sloan, a famous jockey).
According to Partridge (1972:12), it dates from around 1840 and arose in the East End of London, however John Camden Hotten in his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words states that (English) rhyming slang originated "about twelve or fifteen years ago" (i.e. in the 1840s) with 'chaunters' and 'patterers' in the Seven Dials area of London. (The reference is to travelling salesmen of certain kinds. Chaunters sold sheet music and patterers offered cheap, tawdry goods at fairs and markets up and down the country). Hotten's Dictionary included a "Glossary of the Rhyming Slang", the first known such work. It included later mainstays such as "Frog and toad—the main road" and "Apples and pears—stairs" as well as many that later grew more obscure, e.g. "Battle of the Nile—a tile" (vulgar term for a hat), "Duke of York—take a walk", and "Top of Rome—home".
It remains a matter of speculation whether rhyming slang was a linguistic accident, a game, or a cryptolect developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it may also have been used to maintain a sense of community. It is possible that it was used in the marketplace to allow traders to talk amongst themselves in order to facilitate collusion, without customers knowing what they were saying. Another suggestion is that it may have been used by criminals (see thieves' cant) to confuse the police.
The English academic and lexicographer, Terence Dolan, has suggested that rhyming slang may have been invented by Irish immigrants to London "so the actual English wouldn't understand what they were talking about."
At any point in history, in any location, rhyming slang can be seen to incorporate words and phrases that are relevant at that particular time and place. Many examples are based on locations in London and, in all likelihood, will be meaningless to people unfamiliar with the capital e.g. "Peckham Rye", meaning "tie" (as in necktie), which dates from the late 19th century; "Hampstead Heath", meaning "teeth" (usually as "Hampsteads"), which was first recorded in 1887 and "Barnet Fair", meaning "hair", which dates from the 1850s. (In these examples and many subsequent ones the final step of hemiteleia has been omitted to make it easier to trace the origin of the substituted words).
By the mid-20th century many rhyming slang expressions used the names of contemporary personalities, especially actors and performers: for example "Gregory Peck" meaning "neck" and also "cheque"; "Ruby Murray" meaning "curry"; "Alans", meaning "knickers" from Alan Whicker; "Max Miller" meaning "pillow" when pronounced /ˈpilə/ and "Henry Halls" for "balls (testicles)".
The use of personal names as rhymes continued into the late 20th century, for example "Tony Blairs" meaning "flares", as in trousers with a wide bottom (previously this was "Lionel Blairs" and this change illustrates the ongoing mutation of the forms of expression) and "Britney Spears", meaning "beers".
Many examples have passed into common usage. Some substitutions have become relatively widespread in England in their contracted form. "To have a butcher's", meaning to have a look, originates from "butcher's hook", an S-shaped hook used by butchers to hang up meat, and dates from the late 19th century but has existed independently in general use from around the 1930s simply as "butchers". Similarly, "use your loaf", meaning "use your head", derives from "loaf of bread" and also dates from the late 19th century but came into independent use in the 1930s. To "have a giraffe" is commonly employed for a "laugh", although technically this does not involve hemiteleia.
Rhyming slang, in keeping with the rest of the language, is at the mercy of what one might loosely refer to as "false etymology". An example occurs that involves the term "barney", which has been used to mean an altercation or fight since the late 19th century, although without a clear derivation. Thus, in the 1964 film A Hard Day's Night, John Lennon mischievously taunts the road manager with the line “If you're gonna have a barney, can I hold your coat?". In the 2001 feature film Ocean's Eleven Don Cheadle uses the term "barney" and the claim is made that this rhyme is derived from Barney Rubble, ("trouble") with references to a character from the Flintstones cartoon show. This usage can be seen either as an abuse of history, or as a good example of the ever-changing nature of rhyming slang.
Regional and international variations
Rhyming slang is used mainly in London in England but can to some degree be understood across the country. Some constructions, however, rely on particular regional accents for the rhymes to work. For instance, the term "Charing Cross" (a place in London), used to mean "horse" since the mid-19th century, does not work for a speaker without the lot–cloth split, common in London at that time but not nowadays. A similar example is "Joanna" meaning "piano", which is based on the pronunciation of "piano" as "pianna" //. Unique formations also exist in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as in the East Midlands, where the local accent has formed "Derby Road", which rhymes with "cold".
Outside England, rhyming slang is used in many English-speaking countries in the Commonwealth of Nations, but is not in general use in the United States. (Some notable exceptions: "bread" [bread & honey = money], "blow a raspberry" [raspberry tart = fart] and "put up your dukes" [Duke of York = fork, a Cockney slang term for "fist"]). In Australian slang, the term for an English person is "pommy", which has been proposed as a rhyme on "pomegranate" rhyming with "immigrant"; Similarly, the term "seppo/septic" [septic tank = yank] is a slang term for Americans. A more recent Australian invention is the term "reginalds" to describe underpants (referred to as "undies" in Australian slang), from "Reg Grundies" after Reg Grundy, the Australian media tycoon. In Australia and South Africa, the colloquial term "China" is derived from "mate" rhyming with "China plate" (the identical form, heard in expressions like "me old China" is also a long-established Cockney idiom).
Rhyming slang is continually evolving, and new phrases are introduced all the time. As mentioned, new personalities replace old ones (as in Lionel/Tony Blairs—flares), or pop culture introduces new words—as in "I haven't a Scooby" (from Scooby Doo, the eponymous cartoon dog of the cartoon series) meaning "I haven't a clue".
Rhyming slang and taboo terms
Rhyming slang is often used as a substitute for words regarded as taboo, often to the extent that the association with the taboo word becomes unknown over time. "Berk" (often used to mean "foolish person") originates from the most famous of all fox hunts, the "Berkeley Hunt" meaning "cunt"; "cobblers" (often used in the context "what you said is rubbish") originates from "cobbler's awls", meaning "balls" (as in testicles); and "hampton" meaning "prick" (as in penis) originates from "Hampton Wick" (a place in London).
Lesser taboo terms include "pony and trap" for "crap" (as in defecate, but often used to denote nonsense or low quality); to blow a raspberry (rude sound of derision) from raspberry tart for "fart"; "D'Oyly Carte" for "fart"; "Jimmy Riddle" for "piddle" (as in urinate), "J. Arthur Rank" (a film mogul), "Jodrell Bank" or "ham shank" for "wank", "Bristol Cities" (contracted to 'Bristols') for "titties", etc. "Taking the Mick" or "taking the Mickey" is thought to be a rhyming slang form of "taking the piss", where "Mick" came from "Mickey Bliss".
Rhyming slang terms for Jew have included "Chelsea Blue", "Stick of Glue", "Four by Two", "Buckle my shoe", and "Front Wheel Skid", which is a more palatable form of the insulting term "Yid" (which itself comes from the Yiddish word for a Jew).
In December 2004 Joe Pasquale, winner of the fourth series of ITV's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, became well known for his frequent use of the term "Jacobs", for Jacob's Crackers, a rhyming slang term for knackers i.e. testicles.
In popular culture
Rhyming slang is used, then described, and a number of examples suggested as dialogue in one scene of the 1967 film To Sir With Love starring Sidney Poitier. The English students are telling their foreign teacher that the slang is a drag and something for old people.
The 1970s UK television sitcom Not On Your Nellie, which starred Hylda Baker as Bolton woman Nellie Pickersgill, who moves to a Chelsea pub, took its name from the rhyming slang for "not on your Nellie Duff", the rhyming slang for "not on your puff" i.e. not on your life.
In Britain, rhyming slang had a resurgence of popular interest beginning in the 1970s resulting from its use in a number of London-based television programmes such as Steptoe and Son, Mind Your Language, The Sweeney (the title of which is itself rhyming slang—"Sweeney Todd" for "Flying Squad", a rapid response unit of London’s Metropolitan Police), Minder, Citizen Smith, Only Fools and Horses, and EastEnders. Minder could be quite uncompromising in its use of obscure forms without any clarification. Thus the non-Cockney viewer was obliged to deduce that, say, "iron" was "male homosexual" ('iron' = 'iron hoof' = 'poof'). One episode in Series 5 of Steptoe and Son was entitled "Any Old Iron", for the same reason, when Albert thinks that Harold is 'on the turn'. It was also featured in an episode of The Good Life in the first season where Tom and Barbara purchase a wood burning range from a junk trader called Sam, who litters his language with phony slang in hopes of getting higher payment. He comes up with a fake story as to the origin of Cockney Rhyming slang and is caught out rather quickly.
In The Jeffersons season 2 episode The Breakup: Part 2, Mr. Bentley explains Cockney rhyming slang to George Jefferson ("whistle and flute" means "suit", "apples and pears" means "stairs", "plates of meat" means "feet").
In The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, a comic twist was added to rhyming slang by way of spurious and fabricated examples which a young man had laboriously attempted to explain to his father (e.g. 'dustbins' meaning 'children', as in 'dustbin lids' = 'kids'; 'Teds' being 'Ted Heath' and thus 'teeth'; and even 'Chitty Chitty' being 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', and thus 'rhyming slang'...).
In modern literature, Cockney rhyming slang is used frequently in the novels and short stories of Kim Newman, for instance in the short story collections "The Man from the Diogenes Club" (2006) and "Secret Files of the Diogenes Club" (2007), where it is explained at the end of each book. Also, in the novel Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett, this slang is frequently used.
In popular music, Spike Jones and his City Slickers recorded "So 'Elp Me", based on rhyming slang (without the hemiteleia), in 1950. The 1967 Kinks song "Harry Rag" was based on the usage of the name Harry Wragg as rhyming slang for "fag" (i.e. a cigarette). The idiom made a brief appearance in the UK-based DJ reggae music of the 1980s in the hit "Cockney Translation" by Smiley Culture of South London; this was followed a couple of years later by Domenick and Peter Metro's "Cockney and Yardie". London-based artists such as Audio Bullys and Chas & Dave (and others from elsewhere in the UK, such as The Streets, who are from Birmingham) frequently use rhyming slang in their songs.
In movies, Cary Grant's character teaches rhyming slang to his female companion in the film Mr. Lucky (1943) and describes it as Australian rhyming slang. The closing song of the 1969 crime caper, The Italian Job, ("Getta Bloomin' Move On" a.k.a. "The Self Preservation Society") contains many slang terms. In present day feature films rhyming slang is often used to lend authenticity to an East End setting. Examples include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) (wherein the slang is translated via subtitles in one scene); The Limey (1999); Sexy Beast (2000); Snatch (2000); Ocean's Eleven (2001); and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002); It's All Gone Pete Tong (2004), after BBC radio disc jockey Pete Tong whose name is used in this context as rhyming slang for "wrong"; Green Street Hooligans (2005). In Margin Call (2011), Will Emerson, played by London-born actor Paul Bettany, asks a friend on the telephone, "How's the trouble and strife?" ("wife").
In Scottish football, a number of clubs have nicknames taken from rhyming slang. Partick Thistle are known as the "Harry Rags", which is taken from the rhyming slang of their 'official' nickname "the jags". Rangers are known as the "Teddy Bears", which comes from the rhyming slang for "the Gers" (shortened version of Ran-gers). Heart of Midlothian are known as the "Jambos", which comes from "Jam Tarts" which is the rhyming slang for "Hearts" which is the common abbreviation of the Club's name. Hibernian are also referred to as "The Cabbage" which comes from Cabbage and Ribs being the rhyming slang for Hibs.
The title of the 2001 British made for TV film Is Harry on the Boat?, based on the book of the same name by Colin Butts, is a reference to the sexual act of ejaculating on the face. 'Harry Monk', often shortened just to 'Harry', is rhyming slang for "spunk" (a British slang term for semen) and 'boat race', or just 'boat', is rhyming slang for 'face'.
On the TV show The League in episode "The Guest Bong", Andre repeatedly uses Cockney rhyming slang and explains the pattern. One of the times he uses it, he uses "Christmas Carol" as shorthand for "barrel", which causes a misunderstanding that becomes a plot point.
British-born M.C. MF Doom released an ode to the dialect entitled "Rhymin' Slang", after settling in the UK in 2010. The track was released on his 2012 album Keys to the Kuffs.
- Argot: any language or jargon that is used to obscure the meaning of words, sentences, and phrases.
- Euphemism: a word or expression used to substitute a more offensive or unpleasant one.
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