This is one of the oldest cultures in the capital city. Is it dying, has it migrated, been pushed out by outside influences or is it evolving?
If I was to say to you “Would you Adam an Eve it? I was on me way up the frog on me tod to me drum. I was rabbitin away on me dog an didn’t notice two geezers, who’d had a few to many Britneys, havin a barney. I walked straight into it and nearly got me Hampsteads knocked out. Have a butchers at this bloody great big lump on me loaf”, would you know what I was talking about?
This is Cockney Rhyming Slang. The basic principle is that a word is replaced with two words of which the last rhymes. So if you didn’t know the slang you could have a guess at the rhyming word, easy, right? It’s not quite that simple I’m afraid. The slang wasn’t meant to be understood by outsiders. Quite often the rhyming word is missed out and anyone listening would be left completely baffled, for example ‘have a look’ becomes ‘have a Butchers’ (Butcher’s Hook).
The above speech literally translated into the Queen’s English is “Would you believe it? I was on my way up the road to my house. I was talking on my phone and didn’t notice two men, who’d had a few to many beers, having a fight. I walked straight into it and nearly got my teeth knocked out. Have a look at this massive lump on my head”.
No one knows exactly when rhyming slang came about. Many think that it was in the mid-19th Century. Its origins have long been disputed.
One of the most common theories is that it is Cant (code used by criminals to confuse police and eavesdroppers and hide their criminal activities or by traders in the ket place in order to exclude outsiders from conversations when making dodgy sales).
Others argue that the slang came about as a bit of light-hearted fun. There are also many cultural influences to the slang from Jews, Gypsies and the Irish.
Don’t be surprised if you hear rhyming slang outside of London though. Some phrases have travelled up to the north of England. Some of them have even travelled across oceans to South Africa and Australia. A common phrase is “me ol’ china”, which comes from ‘china plate’ and is used affectionately when saying “my old mate”.
So what exactly is a cockney? A true cockney is someone who was born within earshot of the ‘Bow Bells’.
There is a common misconception that the Bow Bells are the bells of Bow Church in the area of Bow. However, they actually belong to the church of St Mary Le Bow in Cheapside.
Bustling with one of the busiest markets, Cheapside was at the heart of London from the 13th to the 17th Centuries. Traditional Cockney food from the Victorian era consists of jellied eels and ‘pie and mash’.
According to records, the first time the word was used to describe a person from London was in 1521. It was used by outsiders as a derogatory term for a Londoner who was ignorant of rural life, weak and incapable of hard labour.
Before this, in the 14th Century the term cockney had meant a cock’s egg (strange, unnatural and misshapen) or a milksop (a mother’s boy).
Nowadays, some northerners still hold this view of Londoners, calling them ‘Southern Fairies’ or ‘Southern Softies’.
But many Cockneys are proud people, not ashamed of their heritage. There are even many people who try to claim they are Cockney without being born within the sound of the Bow Bells.
Cockney is also a dialect, an accent, originally spoken by the working classes around east London. This accent has spread to different parts of London.
Due to East End migration to new areas, the cockney accent is more likely to be found nowadays in Essex and other counties on the outskirts of London.
In the original East End area the accent is dying due to influences from different cultures such as Bangladeshi and Jamaican.
Due to these cultural influences and to technology such as texting, slang has changed too. According to a survey from the Museum of London, many people do not understand rhyming slang anymore.
Sadly true cockneys are now a dying breed as there are currently no maternity hospitals within earshot of the Bow Bells. The cockney is now being replaced by the ‘Mockney’ (a mock cockney), someone who talks the talk but just doesn’t have the key ingredient to being a true cockney. It’s like baking bread without yeast; it’s just never going to have what it takes to be proper bread.