Most have heard of it, few can understand, it and even fewer know from whence it came. So what exactly is Cockney rhyming slang?
In simple terms it's a combination of words (usually two) whose last word rhymes with the word you intend to say. The last word, though, is often omitted, which for those not in the (wink, wink) "know" makes the phrase virtually incomprehensible. Take the most widely known phrase in Cockney rhyming slang for instance: "apples and pears," which means "stairs." The word "pears," however, is usually removed leaving just "apples." So if for instance someone was to say "I'm going up the apples," it means "I'm going up the stairs (upstairs)." Get it? Good.
Pearly King & Queen;
authentic East Enders.
Now try and put your loaf around this one ("loaf" is short for "loaf of bread," which rhymes of course with 'head'): "Got to my mickey, found me way up the apples, put on me whistle and the bloody dog went. It was me trouble telling me to fetch the teapots."
"Got to my house (Mickey Mouse), found my way up the stairs (apples and pears), put on my suit (whistle and flute) when the phone (dog and bone) rang. It was my wife (trouble and strife) telling me to get the kids (teapot lids)."
Early Policemen; The Peelers
If you're left thinking that Morse code would be easier to figure out, you couldn't be more Isle – as in "Isle of Wight," or right. It is thought – although it can't be proved – that code was the original purpose of Cockney rhyming slang. It may have begun in street markets so that traders could communicate without shoppers knowing what was being said. Or among thieves who wanted to devise illicit operations without being overhead and, more importantly, understood by the newly established Police force, the Peelers.
London's East End.
How it started we may never know, but of where it started there is no doubt--London's East End. Located east of the City of London and north of the River Thames, the East End originated in the late 19th century when intense overcrowding in the City displaced the poor. The area in which they moved to became known as "Cockney London."
The word Cockney, meaning "a small cock's egg," originated around the 14th century and was a disparaging name given by country locals to townspeople. It's not known how widespread the usage of the language used by the original East Enders was because written records are virtually non-existent--after all, it was a secret language. In order to keep control of the rising crime levels, however, the Police found it necessary to learn the language and their findings were subsequently published in law enforcement manuals. Thank goodness for that, otherwise we'd be up the creek without a paddle, or quite simply lost.
The Kray Twins.
That last phrase, I am quick to point out is not traditional Cockney rhyming slang. True Cockneys are very proud of their language and given the high propensity for newly invented rhyming slang I'd hate for them to be all mum and dad (mad) at me; after all, you never know where the next Kray brother might be lurking.
The Kray twins, brothers Ronald and Reginald, were notorious East End gangsters in the 1950s and 60s. They must be rolling over in their graves now if they could hear what now goes for Cockney rhyming slang. Especially the perpetrators of "Mockney" rhyming slang, members of the upper classes with a longing to have been born into the authentic poverty of the slums of London Town of long ago.
Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins;
the original Mockney
Most newly created Mockney rhyming slang relies on the names of the rich and famous. If a Mockney invites you round for a "Bill" for instance, you can expect curry to be on the menu (as in "Bill Murray"), during the partaking of which you might be offered a "Winona Ryder." Be sure not to turn it down. Cider is a pleasant accompaniment to a hot spicy meal. After two pints, though, you might need to go for a Bruce Lee, which I'll leave you to figure out. And it doesn't mean tea.