Although not as widely heard in London as it once was, Cockney rhyming slang remains an intrinsic part of the city’s character.
Playful, witty and occasionally crude, the dialect appears to have developed in the city’s East End during the 19th century; a time when the area was blighted by immense poverty.
It’s believed rhyming slang was initially intended as a coded language, utilised by groups such as thieves and market traders in order to mask conversations whenever strangers or law enforcers lurked nearby.
How Cockney Rhyming Slang Works
The majority of Cockney rhyming slang terms are formed using two distinct words with the second word being the rhyming word – for example ‘butcher’s hook’ which means ‘look.’ Some terms are more simple single word rhymes.
However, when conversing in rhyming slang the real trick (in most cases) is to leave out the second word in a two word term. In the case of ‘butcher’s hook’ therefore, you’d simply say, “let’s have a butcher’s.”
In a few cases the first word can be shortened even further- ‘butcher’s hook’ for example can be trimmed down to ‘butch’; “let’s have a butch.”
Over the years, a good deal of rhyming slang has been inspired by famous people. This provides an interesting way of dating such terms.
A good illustration of this would be ‘Gertie Gitana’ which is old rhyming slang for ‘banana.’ Gertie was a celebrated music-hall star and would’ve been a well known name in the early 20th century.
Another example would be ‘Ruby Murray’ which means curry. Ruby Murray was a Northern Irish singer who rose to fame in the 1950s; an era in which Indian restaurants were becoming increasingly popular in Britain. It’s not surprising therefore that, in Cockney rhyming slang, Ruby’s name became synonymous with the dish.
More recent celebrity inspired phrases include “Britney Spears” (beers) and “Danny Glover” (Lover). Such modern terms demonstrate how Cockney rhyming slang is fluid and often being added to- although no doubt some purists would be dismissive of these new-fangled modern terms!
A Cockney Alphabet
Below is a basic A-Z of Cockney Rhyming Slang. This only scratches the surface of course; there are hundreds more terms out there to discover…
Pretty much everyone knows that the rhyming slang for stairs is “apples and pears” so here’s a more unusual term beginning with A.
“Waiter- an Aristotle of your finest red please.”
As well as rhyming with the word, this term alludes to sleep further due to the fact that Bo Peep was a shepherdess. This makes one think of sheep which, if counted in the imagination, is supposed to aid dozing off.
“It’s getting late, time to call for Bo.”
‘Cock and Hen’ is usually used when referring to money. ‘A Cockle’ is an adapted version of this phrase and specifically refers to a ten pound note (aka a ‘tenner’).
“My wallet’s looking pretty empty- I’m down to my last cockle.”
This is a classic and very well known example of rhyming slang, almost as famous as the much vaunted ‘apples and pears’.
“I can’t speak for much longer; I’ve nearly used up all the free minutes on my dog.”
A lot of cockney rhyming slang refers to alcohol. In a similar way to Bo-Peep, the meaning of this phrase is enhanced by the fact that ‘seeing pink elephants’ is a euphemism for being intoxicated.
“I don’t feel too good this morning- I was elephant’s last night.”
Thanks to the amphibian connection, this term can also be alluded to by simply saying ‘the Kermit’.
Sticking with that much beloved Muppet, ‘Kermit the Frog’ also provides us with another example of rhyming slang: ‘bog’; a rather crass term for the lavatory.
“This frog’s a bit bumpy isn’t it?”
This term is usually reserved for when the speaker wishes to use an accusatory tone; it’s essentially another way of asking someone whether or not they’re being serious.
“Are you having a giraffe mate?”
This is one of several rhyming slang terms named after an area of London. Another example would be ‘Barnet Fair’ which means hair.
In early versions of rhyming slang, teeth were usually referred to as ‘Hounslow Heath’. The switch to Hampstead appears to have occurred at some point in the early 20th century.
“I need to book an appointment with the dentist; haven’t had my Hampsteads checked in ages.”
An informal term for a man. Geezer has always been a popular word in London; to call someone a ‘diamond geezer’ for example is a big compliment. A dodgy geezer on the other hand is someone best avoided.
Due to its regular parlance, there are several other ways of saying ‘geezer’- other examples being “Julius Caesar” and “Lemon Squeezer.”
“My pal’s a top ice cream.”
(That’s chips as in fries if you’re outside the UK). Jockey’s whips are best paired with a nice bit of fried Lilian Gish (fish).
“I love to soak my jockeys in salt and vinegar.”
Similar to ‘Hampstead Heath’, this is a good example of how a phrase which refers to a single entity can be pluralised- i.e “King Lears”. In my personal opinion, this is also one of those rare terms in which it’s acceptable to use both parts of the phrase.
Another curious British term for ears is ‘lug holes’. In Cockney rhyming slang, this translates into ‘Toby Jugs’ (lugs).
“I can’t hear you… think I need to get my King Lears syringed.”
As in pork chops, lamb chops and so on; interesting as it swaps sweet for savoury. Lollipop can also be used for ‘shop’.
“I always get my lollipops fresh from the butcher.”
As with Bo Peep, this phrase alludes to a nursery rhyme, the subject matter of which is connected to the term.
“The old Mother’s looking a bit bare.”
This is a modern twist on the still popular term, ‘Battle-cruiser’ which means ‘boozer’ (an informal term for a pub).
“I’ll meet you in the nuclear around eight.”
‘Oliver Twist’ can also be used in a cruder form; as a way of describing someone’s who’s inebriated- i.e ‘pi**ed’.
“The boxer was waving his Olivers all over the place.”
Skint means to be poor/broke. In Europe, polo mints are a popular confectionary- similar to Life Savers.
This rhyming slang is relatively modern. The traditional way to say ‘skint’ in Cockney is to to use the phrase, ‘Boracic Lint’ (which is a type of medical dressing).
“I’m glad it’s pay-day tomorrow; I’ve been Polo all month.”
There are several ways of saying coat in rhyming slang. Other examples are “Billy Goat” and “Weasel and Stoat.”
“It’s a bit chilly outside- make sure you put your Quaker on.”
You might have to put on your best Cockney accent when trying this one. This term was immortalised by legendary Cockney musicians, Chas & Dave in their 1980 hit, ‘Rabbit’… which is about a man complaining his girlfriend talks too much.
An adaptation of this term is specifically used for a person who does indeed have too much to say- you’d declare that “they’ve got too much bunny.”
“It’s about time we sat down and had a good rabbit.”
The Flying Squad are a unit of armed, plain clothes officers who were established by London’s Metropolitan Police Force shortly after WWI.
The rhyming slang which refers to this elite branch takes its name from one of London’s most gruesome legends: Sweeney Todd: aka the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The term was made famous in the 1970s by the gritty cop drama, ‘The Sweeney.’
“Where’s the getaway car? The Sweeney’ll be here any minute!”
This is classic rhyming slang. In Cockney, ‘taters’ is a shorthand way of saying potatoes; it’s how the second part of the word sounds when pronounced in a London accent (‘pa’taters’).
“It’s taters in here. Better turn the thermostat up.”
‘Uncle’ is used a lot in rhyming slang. Other examples include “Uncle Ben” (ten), “Uncle Fred” (bread) and “Uncle Ned” (bed). For this reason, it’s acceptable to use both parts of the phrase in order to differentiate which uncle is being referred to.
“I like your Uncle Bert; very stylish.”
This rhyming slang is inspired by the famous horror actor. Another Cockney term that begins with v and is also inspired by a celebrity is Vera Lynn (the famous WWII singer, now a Dame), who lends her name to ‘gin.’
“A glass of Dame Vera please; with a dash of tonic and a few drops of Vincent.”
This is another classic example of rhyming slang. With your whistle and flute you might choose to wear a ‘tit-for-tat’- a hat.
“I’m off to Saville Row to get fitted for a shiny new whistle.”
As far as I’m aware, there are no official Cockney rhyming slang terms beginning with X… so I decided to make one up! After all, these phrases have to start somewhere.
“The British love to have a good xylo about the weather.”
To understand this phrase the listener must know that, in this context, a motor refers specifically to a car. A variation on this phrase is ‘Haddock and Bloater.’
“Is it ok if I borrow the Yarmouth?”
As with the letter X, this rhyming slang is of my own devising as, to my knowledge, there are no true phrases beginning with Z. If you can think up any such new terms then please feel free to share them!
“I can’t believe the bank refused me a zombie!”