Rhyming slang

Rhyming slang is a form of phrase construction in the English language and is especially prevalent in dialectal British 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, in a process called hemiteleia,[1][2] making the origin and meaning of the phrase elusive to listeners not in the know.[3]

The most frequently cited example- although it is almost never employed by current users- [2] involves the replacement of "stairs" with the rhyming phrase "apples and pears". Following the usual pattern of omission, "(and) pears" is then dropped and "stairs" becomes "apples". Thus the spoken phrase "I'm going up the apples" means "I'm going ['up the stairs'/'upstairs']".

In similar fashion, "telephone" is replaced by "dog" (= 'dog-and-bone'); "wife" by "trouble" (= 'trouble-and-strife'); "eyes" by "minces" (= 'mince pies'); "wig" by "syrup" (= 'syrup of fig') 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 got straight on the dog to me trouble and said I couldn't believe me minces.

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 has been subjected to a double rhyme, starting with the original rough synonym "arse", which was rhymed with "bottle and glass", leading to "bottle". "Bottle" was then rhymed with "Aristotle" and truncated to "Aris".[2]

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".[4]

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 (Tod Sloan, a famous jockey) (see Sloan).



Rhyming slang is believed to have originated in the mid-19th century in the East End of London, with several sources suggesting some time in the 1840s.[5][6][7]

According to Partridge (1972:12), it dates from around 1840 and arose amongst the predominantly Cockney population of the East End of London, who are well known for having a characteristic accent and speech patterns. 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 Westminster. (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.

An introduction to rhyming slang is found in Up the frog: the road to Cockney rhyming slang, by Sydney Thomas Kendall.[8]


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 in order to allow the reader more readily 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" (an actor) meaning "neck" and also "cheque"; "Ruby Murray" (an Irish singer) meaning "curry"; "Alans", meaning "knickers" from Alan Whicker (a British television personality); "Max Miller" meaning "pillow" when pronounced /ˈpilə/ (after a mildly risqué British comedian) and "Henry Halls" meaning "balls" (as in testicles) after British bandleader Henry Hall.

The use of personal names as rhymes continued into the late 20th century. Two examples illustrate the trend (i) "Tony Blairs" (usually as "Tonys"), after the British prime minister, meaning "flares", as in trousers with a wide bottom. Previously this was "Lionel Blairs" (after a British dancer) and this change illustrates the ongoing mutation of the forms of expression (ii) "Britney Spears" (usually as "Britneys"), meaning "beers", as in "Let’s get a round of Britneys".

Many examples have passed into common usage. Some substitutions have become relatively widespread in Britain 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.[3] It is likely that many people who use these terms today are unaware of their origin.

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.[9] Thus, in 1964, in A Hard Day's Night, John Lennon taunts the road manager into “having a barney”.[10] In the 2001 feature film Ocean's Eleven an actor uses the term "barney" and the claim is made that this rhyme is derived from Barney Rubble,[11] ("trouble") with references to a character from the Flintstones cartoon show. This usage can be seen as either 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. The term "Charing Cross" for example (a place in London) has been used to mean "horse" since the mid-19th century[3] but does not rhyme unless "cross" is pronounced /ˈkrɔːs/ to rhyme with "course". A similar example is "Joanna" meaning "piano", which is based on the pronunciation of "piano" as "pianna" /piˈænə/). 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", a conjunction that would not be possible elsewhere in the UK.

Outside England, rhyming slang is used in many English-speaking countries. In Australian slang the term for an English person is "pommy", which has been proposed as a rhyme on "pomegranate" rhyming with "immigrant".[12][13] A more recent Australian invention is the term "reginalds" to describe underpants, from "Reg Grundies" after Reg Grundy, the Australia 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).

In the United States the common slang expression "brass tacks" may be a rhyme for "facts",[citation needed]. The term "blow a raspberry", meaning to make a noise through the mouth with the tongue protruding, is also believed to be of American origin and probably comes from "raspberry tart" to rhyme with "fart".[citation needed]

In London rhyming slang is continually evolving, and new phrases are introduced all the time. As mentioned new personalities replace old ones (as in Lionel/Tony Blair's - flairs), or pop culture introduces new words - as in "I haven't a Scooby" (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); "D'Oyly Carte" for "fart"; "Jimmy Riddle" for "piddle" (as in urinate), and "J. Arthur Rank" (a film mogul) for "wank". "Taking the Mickey (Bliss)" is thought to be a rhyming slang form of "taking the piss".[14]

Rhyming slang terms for Jew have included "Chelsea Blue", "Stick of Glue", "Four by Two" and "Buckle my shoe".

Rhyming slang in popular culture

Rhyming slang is used, then described and a number of examples are suggested as part of dialog 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.[15]

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,[16] 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'.

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 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.[17]

In popular music, 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. The UK punk scene of the late 1970s introduced bands that glorified their working-class heritage: Sham 69 had a hit song "The Cockney Kids are Innocent". 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". 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).

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 Michael Caine 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).


  1. ^ Roberts, Chri s (2006). Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme. Thorndike Press. ISBN 0-7862-8517-6. 
  2. ^ a b c Bryson, Bill (1990). Mother Tongue. Penguin. ISBN 0-140-14305-x. 
  3. ^ a b c Ayto, John (2002). The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280122-8. 
  4. ^ Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 
  5. ^ Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of Historical Slang. Penguin, 1972.
  6. ^ Hotten, John Camden (1859). "Some account of the Rhyming Slang, the secret language of Chaunters and Patterers". A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words. John Camden Hotten. pp. 133–136. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Zhk9h-w1negC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Dictionary+of+Modern+Slang,+Cant+and+Vulgar+Words&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  7. ^ Sullivan, Dick. ""Weeping Willow" stands for "Pillow": Victorian Rhyming Slang". http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slang1.html. Retrieved 16 January 2010. 
  8. ^ ISBN 978-0723401384
  9. ^ Partridge,Eric, A concise dictionary of slang and unconventional English. Routledge, 1991:22. (ISBN 0-415-06352-3)
  10. ^ A Hard Day’s Night, United Artists, 1964
  11. ^ Re: Having a barney
  12. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary cites a well-known Australian weekly, The Bulletin, which on 14 November 1912 reported: "The other day a Pummy Grant (assisted immigrant) was handed a bridle and told to catch a horse." Online Oxford English Dictionary entry for "Pomegranate".
  13. ^ Partridge,Eric, A concise dictionary of slang and unconventional English. Routledge,1991:342. (ISBN 0-415-06352-3)
  14. ^ "Who Were They? - Tricky Verdicts", from Balderdash and Piffle, BBC, August 2007
  15. ^ To Sir With Love YouTube
  16. ^ Hawkins, Brian, The Phenomenon that was Minder. Chameleon Press, 2002 (ISBN 962-86812-1-4)
  17. ^ Shambles in Belgravia BBC Cult

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