Cockney Rhyme Glossary



What Is Cockney Rhyming Slang?

Cockney rhyming slang is a regional dialect that is most prominent in London and the county of Essex. It consists of words that are substituted for short phrases that rhyme with them, for example:

Stairs = Apple and Pears

The phrases sometimes have no direct relation to the original word or the intended meaning. There are variations and alternatives to many words, and sometimes the rhyming slang has been modified to suit the individual. The origins of rhyming slang are hard to come by; therefore it is hard to infer why it was formed without credible evidence.

Some linguists believe that are a variety of social factors could have been the catalyst to the formation of this rhyming slang system.

One belief is that as many Cockneys were of a working class status within society, they created the system as a retort to the privileged lives of the upper classes who appeared elitist and superior in education and wealth. It was because of their minority status that made the steps towards a secular, secretive set of words that only those within the Cockney circle would understand the conversations; basically segregating the segregators through language rather than material possession.

Support of the idea of a secret language comes from the case of the thieves' underworld. It is noted that the police discovered rhyming slang within the subculture of thieves, because they made it 'part of their business, in the interests of public security, to learn thieves' lingo.' (Franklyn, p.5) Franklyn also states that if a group of men were contemplating the 'prospects of a successful robbery' they could communicate strategies to each other in 'strong underworld cant' without the victim knowing what was going to happen.(ibid.p5) Although this is documented heavily after the initial discovery by the law enforcement, it does not fully constitute as an origin, in fact, Franklyn believes that rhyming slang began as a result of 'friendly rivalry', which twenty-five to thirty years before this discovery within the criminal underworld.

The Victorian era was also known to many as the Industrial Revolution; the inventions of the steam engines and the introduction of the railway system saw a huge influx of activity. The naavy (a labourer) were hired to excavate and build the canals and railway tracks that needed strength and endurance, which these men were famous for. These men were mostly of a working class background and seen in minority groups; these ranks were filled by the Cockneys and the Irish.

In the extract below from Franklyn's book A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, details his theory of the origin of rhyming slang:

' These two ethnic groups, so far asunder in many ways, yet have much in common. Each is fond of the sound of his own voice, both are lovers of words. The Cockney is renowned for his sense of humour, the Irishman for his quick temper, but the fact is, Cockneys will fight when fisticuffs are necessary, and the Irishman loves a joke. the difference in reaction is that the Cockney is tolerant and takes a great deal of annoyance, but the Irishman, considering himself a son of an oppressed nation, has developed, in common with all persecuted people, a tendency to make a major issue out of a minor incident. the Cockney arranges to have a fight in private, the Irishman leaps to his in public. The Cockney is amused at the Irishman's boastfulness and excitability, the Irishman amazed at the Cockney's modesty and stolid endurance./ . . In this atomsphere, and under these conditions, the quick-witted Cockney created rhyming slang, as a means of mystifying the 'Micks', and having a last laugh. Verbal Competition is a fine forging house for linguistic ability.' (Franklyn, p.6)

Of course they eventually caught on to the system and 'paid back in Irish-flavoured rhyme' , which stands to reason why there are several instances of Irish origins and names within the Cockney rhyme system: Franklyn believes that there is no other reason for 'these Irish references' that cannot be accounted for in any other way' but this instance of cross-cultural mixing during the large scale work of the navvies. (Franklyn, p.6)

This word play and sarcastic humour is an essential part of the construction of the traditional rhyming slang that many of us have forgotten to this day. It is a form of language that is misinterpreted and misconceived as being secretive, and its true prinicple is the rejoicing of our language and the possibilities that hold within its flexible borders.


The problems faced when making a glossary of this particular type of slang:

The main problems that occurred during this project were in three areas: definitions; etymology and citations; and phonology. The process of defining a word can be difficult and challenging whether you choose to make a synchronic or diachronic dictionary and this ultimately depends on your target audience.

A synchronic format is useful for a children’s dictionary, as it would have to be far more straightforward with generalised one-word definitions that contain concise and simple information. Now a diachronic format is ideal for more practical uses in secondary schools and colleges as pupils would require a dictionary that delivers more specific definitions, utilising full sentences, displaying grammatical and historical information and have all the instances of use the words have.

For my study I wanted to have a complete database of rhyming slang based on the diachronic format; however, it was difficult to display all the detailed information needed for this particular style due to the fact that many of the slang words that I have collected can be defined using only one word: the synchronic method. The main cause of this particular problem is due to the underlying principles of the rhyming slang format.

The format of exchanging a word that rhymes with a short phrase is relatively simplistic and a suggested purpose of this word play is that the rhyming slang itself is a secret system of words, which Julian Franklyn highlights in A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang by saying that ‘among the numerous reasons for the adoption of slang expressions is the need by certain classes of community for a secret language.’ Julian Franklyn, ‘A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang’ (Great Britain: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1960), p.5.

As with all code systems they have to be simple enough so that the listeners in a conversation can decode quickly what it is the speaker is talking about; therefore, (as most rhyming slang is) a one word definition is both sufficient and vital for semantic understanding during a conversation with rhyming slang. A trend that occurs throughout my database is that many of the slang phrases refer to concrete nouns particularly physical objects like ‘car’, ‘head’ and ‘eyes’ and these are relatively short in length; therefore, a synchronic format would be ideal to house this particular data, because of the simplistic nature. However, for a complete and detailed dictionary suitable for children aged sixteen and older a dictionary needs to have far more detailed description than just one-word; the solution to this problem was to examine all possible uses for that particular slang word and by doing so it becomes far easier to obtain detailed definitions and grammatical information.

Etymology and citations that include the defined word in written or spoken use are important criteria to a dictionary to show the development and changes that have occurred in its usage throughout history. The main problem with finding the origins of Cockney rhyming slang words is the fact that many of them are unknown. There are very few credible documents that have the first recorded use of rhyming slang words and this is for two reasons.

Firstly, the reputation of rhyming slang was affected by the reputation of the Cockneys. They were classed as vulgar and common; identified with thieves and were seen as criminals, and where known as part the lowest form of class within the Victorian social hierarchy. Although they regarded it as obscene there were many volumes of cant and slang glossaries published during this century, mainly because it was a way to enforce the views (that I mentioned previously) held on the status of slang as not being a credible part of the English language and of the perception of the Cockney. Such volumes included The Vulgar Tongue edited by the author known only by the pseudonym 'Ducange Anglicus' and the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue : A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence written by Francis Grose.

Despite having documented examples of rhyming slang from these glossaries, they are unreliable as sources to support etymological theories, because of the biased and propagandist nature of the texts, and their negative reactions to the status of all slang. As well as this, there is an oral element to the rhyming slang, not just through illiteracy but the deep accent and phonological aspects of the Cockney is hard to write down.

map Dialect Map of England


Originally the dialect of the working class of East End London.



Despite this information it becomes difficult when creating the glossary if I should include this as rhym,ing slang, when to me it is an imperfect rhyme but if a person with a strong Cockney accent read the word aloud he would place that immediately within the glossary. So the question is do we base the glossary on how other speakers of English pronounce the words or do we base it upon the original pronunciation? For this I decided to incorporate a sense of both by a) making sure that the headwords in my glossary were defined as a rhyming slang phrase or derived from one, and whether it is an imperfect rhyme and b) adding a pronunciation column where I have broken down the words and spelt them phonetically so to portray how the Cockney accent changes some of the vowel patterns and dropping a lot of consonants like 'h' and 't'.


Examples of Cockney Rhyming Slang in Print:

According to Julian Franklyn in A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang the following poem was producedbyDoss Chideross (A.R. Marshall) who 'produced, every week, something between half and a whole column in verse, wit, wisdom and caustic on current affairs' and in 'The Rhyme of the Rusher' uses Cockney rhyming slang for this reason.


The Rhyme of the Rusher (In Appropriate Rhyming Slanguage) 29th October 1892

I was out one night on the strict teetote,
'Cause I couldn't afford a drain;
I was wearing a leaky I'm afloat, (coat)
And it started to France and Spain. (rain)
But a toff was mixed in a bull and cow,(row)
And I helped him to do a bunk;
He had been on the I’m so tap, and now (whisky)
He was slightly Elephant’s trunk. (drunk)

He offered to stand me a booze, so I
Took him round to ‘The Mug’s Retreat’;
And my round the houses I tried to dry (trousers)
By the Anna Maria’s heat. (fire)
He stuck to the I’m so to drown his cares,(whisky/ tears)
While I went for the far and near, (beer)
Until the clock on the apples and pears (stairs)
Gave office for us to clear.

Then round at the club we’d another bout,
And I fixed him at nap until (slap)
I turned his skyrockets inside out,(pockets)
And managed my own fill.
Of course I had gone on the half-ounce trick,(bounce/cheat)
And we quarrelled and came to blows;
But I fired him out of the Rory quick, (door)
And he fell on his I suppose.