Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cockney Rhyming Slang

Cockney Rhyming Slang developed in East London in the first half of the 19th century by the working class people. If not invented by, it was certainly used and contributed to, by the underworld as a code to confuse police and eavesdroppers. A word, name, or phrase is used to substitute for a word with which it rhymes. Simple examples would be pride and joy for boy and ribbons and curl for girl.

Sometimes the words they represent are themselves slang terms. For example Ben Hur for stir (prison). Longer phrases are often shortened to the first word, adding to the confusion: blowing raspberries comes from raspberry tart for fart. Both these principles are found in the phrase put up your dukes as a challenge to a fist fight. Dukes is short for Duke of York for fork which is a slang term for hand and by extension fist.

Some words have several slang terms to choose from. Depending on the situation, you can refer to your wife variously as light of my life, carving knife, or trouble and strife. Again usually shortened as in "I'll see if my trouble is home". Money can be bees and honey, bread and honey, or  Bugs Bunny. The shortened form bread was adopted by the hippies in the 1960s, so was one of only three in the book that I recognized (but had no idea of the origins).

Names are commonly used as slang terms. Most are real people, well-known (at the time anyway), and may or may not have any connection to the word they represent.  Richard Burton for curtain makes sense. Captain Scott (who froze to death in his 1912 South Pole expedition) ironically represents the word hotTom Sawyer (a well-known fictional character) replaces lawyer, with no obvious connection other than the rhyme. Other names are simply made up to rhyme such as Mrs. Duckett for bucket and Harry Huggins for muggins (slang for idiot).

These slang terms changed considerably over the years, with modern versions replacing outdated ones. There is also great regional variation, as you would expect when anyone at any time could make up their own.

To test how readily a new rhyming slang phrase could be understood by its context, I'll make one up just for you: I hope you enjoyed this hog roast!

Source: Cockney Rabbit - A Dick'n'Arry of Rhyming Slang by Ray Puxley, 1992.


  1. muggins - it is what you are supposed to say when you count the points in cribbage that your opponent missed in their hand. Now I know why. Idiot.

  2. Muggins

    The Urban Dictionary gives this definition: []
    1) Muggins - Proper noun. One who has been duped into performing some service against their wishes, or been otherwise disadvantaged through an embarrassingly simple ruse.

    The Free Dictionary offers these []
    muggins [ˈmʌgɪnz]
    1. Brit slang
    a. a simpleton; silly person
    b. a title used humorously to refer to oneself
    2. (Group Games / Games, other than specified) a variation on the game of dominoes
    3. (Group Games / Card Games) a card game
    [probably from the surname Muggins]
    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

    Someone, likely our parents, taught us to say "Muggins" when you won at dominoes. Looks like Muggins is a particular variation of the game.

  3. I am so glad to find out about raspberries and dukes. I had no idea it was from rhyming slang!

  4. Just discovered a post on rhyming slang in the OxfordWords blog from June 14.
    I learned from it that rhyming slang is commonly used in Australian English and that modern terms for currently famous people include Britney Spears for beers and Shania Twain for pain.

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