London’s secret language

Arabic, Turkish, French, Spanish, Panjabi, Gurejati, Yorubu, Somali, Nigerian… are just a few of the many languages spoken in London. More than three hundred languages can be heard while walking down the streets of the capital of the United Kingdom, making it the most linguistically diverse city in the world. English, of course, is the most spoken language. The strong British accent captures the essence of the people, always rushing to catch the underground or running with their hands aloft, trying to stop the famous red buses.

The telephone boxes, together with the London Eye,Big Ben, Covent Garden and Camden Town are the most visited tourist attractions in the city. What people might not know is that in the East End district there is a secret that can’t be seen but heard. A secret language originated in the 19th century called Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Actually, calling the CRS a language is not the most accurate way to describe it, as the words used for it are English common words. But it isn’t a dialect either. We could say that it is a variety of English slang spoken in the East End of London. So, how does it work? Basically, it is about creating an expression which rhymes with the word the speaker wants to say and then using the expression instead. Many times the rhyming word might be omitted, which makes it even more difficult to understand the meaning if there is no previous knowledge of it.

Cockney Rhyming Slang can sound a little bit crazy and impossible to get. Sometimes it can also sound like a song due to the rhyming. The easiest way to understand how it works, though, is by using an example. One of the most common expressions which have travelled all around the world is “apples and pears”, most of the times shortened like “apples”, meaning stairs. So to compose the expression a rhyming word for stairs has to be chosen, in this case, that word would be pears. Now a word that is going to accompany the rhyming word is needed, which is going to be “apples”. This way the expression will be completed. This phrase was first recorded in 1850s.

There are other alternatives for the word stairs such as “Fred Astaires”, “troubles and cares” and “stocks and shares” but “apples and pears” is by far the one that is used the most. Some say that this expression is barely used nowadays even if it is the best known and most widely understood phrase also outside the UK. That could be the result of being the archetype of the genre and becoming a cliché passing out of real usage.

I’m just going down the apples & pears to get a cup of tea from the kitchen

I meet Rob Becher next to the Bow Bells, right in the heart of the origin of the Cockney Rhyming Slang, as some of the theories say. “ Allo China plate!” he says, and he laughs when he realises my face is full of confusion (China plate = mate). We shake hands and he explains he was just saying hello, just in case I thought we were going to a Chinese restaurant.  We shared a “giraffe” (laugh).

Rob is a Londoner raised in the East End and still living there with his wife and two sons. When he was a child, his mum used to show him some Cockney Rhyming Slang phrases every week, “she used to say I became an addict”, he says. He explains he still remembers his mother cooking in the kitchen while he was trying to figure out what she said looking for the right word that rhymed with the phrase. “It is a very powerful memory that I am always going to enjoy when it comes to my mind,” he says with a big smile on his face. Now he is trying to do the same with his children, even though he is not as successful as his mother.

East Side London

The real origin is uncertain, but one of the most common stories starts around the year 1840 in the East End, which has been formerly the centre of London’s docks and heavy industry. Some of the stories tell that the CRS was originated in the market place, allowing the vendors to communicate to each other without the customers knowing what was going on. It is also believed that it was originated in the prisons so the criminals could communicate to each other without the guards knowing what they were saying. Some other stories tell that it was originated between robbers to steal from people in the markets. There are many stories, true or not, but all of them turn out to have the same conclusion: it is a secret way of talking which is still alive.

Some expressions have spread and are popular throughout the rest of Britain. Television is one of the causes of that expansion, as it has created awareness in the whole country thanks to classic TV shows such as “Steptoe and Son”, “Minder”, “Porridge” and “Only Fools and Horses”. Anyway, the meaning and the expression can vary depending on the region, mainly due to the different accents. England is not the only country using this way of talking though. Cockney Rhyming Slang is also used in many English-speaking countries, such as Australia, USA and Canada.

One of the things that Rob Becher finds “funny” is how new expressions are developing. Modern Cockney slang tends to rhyme words with celebrities or famous people, like “Britney Spears” (meaning “beers”). “Nowadays it is not enough with knowing the language itself, you also have to have some knowledge about famous people. I think is a fun way to keep creating new expressions, but also, I feel kind of old, as I do not know who a lot of the famous people they refer to are,” Rob says.

CRS was first known as Rhyming Slang and it was not until long after many of its examples had travelled world-wide that “Cockney” was added to the name. According to Rob, Cockney refers to the people born within the sound of Bow Bells (St Mary-le-Bow church), East End of London. As the street noise in the capital increases every year, though, the area in which the peeling of the bells can be heard has been gradually reduced. Much like the real Cockney’s area is reducing, together with the people with Cockney accent and slang.

St. Mary Le Bow

CRS is a name of the 20th century, which is shorthand for London or English Rhyming Slang. There are also different versions of the derivation of the name. Rob shows me a piece of paper with a copy of the description of the word taken from the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811). He looks at me with excitation while I read the story he has just showed me.

“Cockney:

A nick name given to the citizens of London, or persons born within the sound of Bow Bell, derived from the following story:

A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! How that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called neighing, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to show he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, do you hear how the cock neighs?”

Cockney Rhyming Slang often includes humour but it is also used as a substitute for words regarded as taboo, perhaps that’s the reason why.

CRS is highly volatile as the terms emerge quickly and many do not catch on. Rob Becher believes though that the phrases already established and some of the ones emerging will give their language a strong identity and enrich their culture. Cockney Rhyming Slang, a secret kept from the outsiders still alive within the Bow Bells shadow in the East End of London.