Issue 3 |

Cockney Rhyming Slang: Origins and survival

by on June 2, 2015


An English dialect that has always grabbed my attention is Cockney. Its lengthy history goes back to the late 1300s—immortalised in the rags-to-riches stories of authors and playwrights such as Charles Dickens and Steven Berkoff—all the way to 20th century television shows like Eastenders and films like My Fair Lady.

A fascinating offshoot of Cockney is Cockney rhyming slang, which typically consists of a phrase containing two nouns to form an idiom or metaphor that rhymes with the latter noun in the expression. For example, apple and pears means ‘stairs’ and brown bread means ‘dead’. Its origin dates back to its use among dock workers and criminals in 19th century London, eventually finding its way to merchants who served goods in various East End marketplaces like Billingsgate Fish Market and Covent Garden’s various fruit and vegetable stands. These deviant people would speak in code to dodge the police officers, police informants, and rival gangs that were after them.

In the last century, a dictionary-like list of these rhyming terms has come into fruition, combining humour, politically incorrect terms, and anecdotes to create a coded language within this popular dialect. Well let’s go for a ball of chalk (‘walk’) shall we?

Types of Rhyming Slang

First we have slang terms that omit the rhyming part of the expression to make the dialect more exclusive and less comprehensible to outsiders. For example:

Cockney rhyming slangWhat it meansUse
butcher’'s hooklookLet'’s take a butcher’'s at that paper
Jack MalonealoneAll on his Jack.

Other slang classes include the names of real or fictional characters:

Cockney rhyming slangWhat it means
Donald Duckluck
Walter Scottpot

The names of places are another common way to classify the terms. In particular, locales in London where Cockney rhyming slang is spoken:

Cockney rhyming slangWhat it means
St Martins-LeGrandhand
Hampstead Heathteeth

Some rhymes can carry over an undertone of irony:

Cockney rhyming slangWhat it means
Westminster Abbeyshabby
holy friarliar

Finally there are rhymes that refer to other Cockney slang terms:

Cockney rhyming slangWhat it means
grasshoppercopper (‘policeman’)
half inchpinch (‘steal’)

Now let us see how Cockney rhyming slang can be put in a statement:

So I was going up the apples and pears (‘stairs’), where the trouble and strife (‘wife’) gave me a rabbit and pork (‘talk’) about her needing a speckled hen (‘ten’) to buy some Acker Bilk (‘milk’). I said that we don’t have any bread and honey (‘money’), that we’re all polo mint (‘skint’, which is Cockney slang for ‘broke’) because I spent our last apple core (‘score’, which is Cockney slang for ‘£20’) on some Steve McQueens (‘jeans’).

Cockney rhyming slang is a mixed bag of phrases and idioms that can apply to all types of situations, and is used by people from all walks of life. Here are the origins and usages of 4 distinct rhymes that are part of the everyday language for the Cockney speaking population.

Rhyme #1 – Porky Pies

The Cockney population has a rhyme for all kinds of lies—or Porky Pies. This term dates back to the very beginning of Cockney slang around the mid-1850s and is also one of many terms still in use in present day England.

Porky Pies stems from a British delicacy, the humble pork pie. For example:

                    Don’t tell me a porky pie about where you have been all night!

The term can also be abbreviated by deleting “lies” and pluralising “porky”, resulting in the term porkies used here in a sentence:

                    Don’t be telling me porkies!

In 1997, then-UK Prime Minister John Major fell victim to a televised smear campaign exposing his faults during his tenure as leader of the Conservative Party. The television programme that aired during the 1997 UK General Election was appropriately titled, John Major’s Pork Pie Factory.

Evidently, the idiom is no stranger to television. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, in the 1970s, a wave of British police shows would use the same cliched line or variation of it, for example when a cop was interrogating a suspect:

                    You wouldn’t be telling me porkies, would you, son?

A 1970s-80s sitcom called Only Fools and Horses included these lines of dialogue:

                    Rodney: You don’t believe all them stories do you?

                    Del: What? Do you reckon they’re porkies?”

Rhyme #2 – On Your Tod Sloan

This simply means ‘to be alone’. It is based on the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of an American: James Forman “Tod” Sloan, the famous horse jockey of the early 20th century.

Sloan was born in 1874 in Indiana, and was orphaned at a young age. When he was 11, he went to work as a stable boy at his local horse ranch. By the time he was 21, he had become one of the most famous horse jockeys of his generation Unfortunately, Sloan went into debt due to failed business ventures, and died the way he was born, in poverty. Towards the end of his life, he stated in his autobiography, Tod Sloan by Himself:

                    “I was left alone by those I have never ceased to grieve for”

The quote was picked up by the East End population, and later coined as a metaphor to mean ‘alone’ in memory of Sloan’s last few depressing years.

This term is an example of the use of a person’s name for the sake of rhyme. As Donald Duck and Walter Scott have taken on the meanings for ‘luck’ and ‘pot’ respectively, due to their rhyme pairs, On Your Tod Sloan stands out from the other namesake slang terms because it has a historical link to the person’s story and not just a rhyming link.

Originally the metaphor was On Your Tod Sloan, but like other slang terms, the rhymed word—in this case Sloan—was removed in daily conversation, and the preceding term took over. It is now the norm among the Cockney speakers to say on your tod:

                    He has been all on his tod since his wife left him

In recent years, modern pop culture references have taken on the definition of being ‘alone’, such as the Swiss chocolate bar, Toblerone:

                    Why is he all toblerone?

And the famous Irish hurler Pat Malone:

                    I’m all pat tonight.

Rhyme #3 – Pig’s Ear

After a long day in the office, people like to unwind at the nearest bar or restaurant for a few pig’s ears or just one pig only. As a popular pub drink, beer has its own Cockney rhyming slang that gets passed around in daily conversation. However it does not always refer to the popular alcoholic drink.

The idiom’s earliest appearance was first made circa 1880 in D.W. Barrett’s Life and Work Among Navvies:

                    Now, Jack, I’m goin’ to get a tiddley wink of pig’s ear.

Pig’s Ear also gained two meanings as time progressed. A person under the influence of beer tends to make regrettable mistakes. So when one makes a pig’s ear out of a situation, he/she botches things up for the worst. In the 1950s, Readers Digest, an American publication, used this term in one of their articles:

                    If you make a pig’s ear out of the first one, you can try the second one.

If a fact or opinion is in a pig’s ear, then it is an invalid statement that has no concrete evidence to support it. This version of the Cockney rhyming slang expression may also be seen as an unverified variation on two pre-19th century American idioms: in a pig’s eye and when pigs fly—both of which refer to things that are unlikely to happen. For example:

                    – I heard that World War III might come.

                    – Don’t believe those rumours, it’s all in a pig’s ear

As we finish our beer, we feel drunk and have strange sensations in our stomachs. The end result of those aches and pains paves the way for the last rhyme.

Rhyme #4 – Raspberry Tart

Raspberry Tart is defined simply as a ‘fart’. Few people outside of England, realise that the term Raspberry has its origins in Cockney rhyming slang.

The slang term, Raspberry originated in a 1890s slang dictionary, with Raspberry Tart following soon after. The original definition was:

                    “Any sign or expression of displeasure or derision”

A Raspberry tart is the act of blowing a raspberry, which is when the pressing of the lips are used to imitate the sound of flatulence. For example:

                    Blimey Arfur, did you ‘ear that raspberry tart the ‘orse just blew orff?

A main reason why the idiom was shortened to Raspberry (as we use it today) is that the word “tart” was considered unsuitable in proper company, because of its slang use meaning ‘a prostitute’. Hence the word “tart” has rarely been included in the slang phrase in recent years and the term Raspberry has become the standard Cockney method for referring to a “fart”.

Raspberry tart became associated with the fart sound not just because of the end-rhyme, but because of a popular skit by The Goons. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) were known during the 1950s to censor any script that might seem risque. Two members of The Goons: Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, wrote a song called “The Raspberry Song” which made subtle references to the act of flatulence:

                    Don’t tell me he’s come to stay

                    Let the wardens here him say

                    Fruit’s in season! Let’s be merry! Apples, plums and the old raspberry

                    Everything is fresh today

                    Don’t let him get near me, please!

                    Every Friday night when work is done

                    He doesn’t waste a minute

                    To the prison warden he hurries ’round where he sings just like a linnet

                    To hear him blow a melody it’s great, you can’t deny it

Milligan would repeat his obsession with the fart sound by writing a sketch with fellow comedian, Ronnie Barker, called “The Raspberry Blower of Old London Town”, about Jack the Ripper killing his victims by blowing them a raspberry, and with Milligan himself supplying the sounds.

Unlike the three previous slang idioms/metaphors, Raspberry tart has become associated with a particular sound. It remains as one of the great uses of comedic timing, which to this day continues to be used by many comedians to entertain their audiences.


So now that you have a Scooby Doo (‘clue’) about how to speak Cockney rhyming slang, try some of the rhymes on strangers riding the sosay (‘so say all of us’, which means ‘bus’) or the driver of your smash and grab (‘cab’). Shout some words out the burnt cinder (‘window’) or when your telling a jackanory (‘story’) or railway timetable (‘fable’). Drop a few slangs on your pot and pan (‘old man’, specifically, ‘father’) for kicks. Will they Adam or Eve (‘believe’) what you’re saying or will they be having a giraffe (‘laugh’) at the whole thing. Just be careful that you do not offend the bottles and stoppers (‘coppers’) or they will throw you in the kitchen sink (‘clink’, Cockney slang for ‘jail’) faster than you can say potatoes in the mould (‘cold’).

See you Christian Slater (‘later’)!

20 Responses to “Cockney Rhyming Slang”

  1. The way cockney rhyming slang is used is to only use the none rhyming word eg So i was going up the apples where the trouble gave me a load of old rabbit etc.if you use the rhyming word it makes it obvious therefore less secret. Train = rattle =rattle and cane, time =bird =bird lime. Doing bird =serving time in prison.

    • As the son of a Cockney, I have to say that that whole passage sounds totally inauthentic! In fact, most of the article gives the impression that the author got his Cockney info from the stage and screen rather than the London streets. See you Christian Slater, my foot.

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  2. Oh, I was born in the UK and this did a fine job of clearing some things up for me. I’m sure there’s more authentic explanations out there. But I was just trying to explain to a mate why I used the term Porky-Pie, turns out I didn’t know the history behind it at all. I honestly thought it had something to do with Georgie Porgie but I had read about that, so it didn’t make sense.

    I thought it was a good read. There’s always a critic out there.

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