WTF Weds: Cockney Rhyming Slang

Posted on
May 30, 2012

Words are funny little things.

I know, because I spend most of my days wrestling with them, trying to manipulate them into what I want them to be, often to no avail. Have you ever tried chiseling someone’s likeness in a a hunk of jell-o? It’s something like that.

But I love them, and I can’t rightly abandon them, because my blog would be oh-so-boring without words. It would be nothing more than photos of cupcakes and me making out with my husband. (I realize it’s not much more than that now, but it has the potential to be more, thanks to words. Or so I tell myself.)

And so I struggle to understand them. I even went so far as to read Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. I mean, I read part of it – somewhere in the ballpark of 24 pages. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but believe me, it is. That book is excruciating and fascinating. It likes watching a documentary on space while having someone scream into your ear and slap you repeatedly with a fish.

Yes, it’s interesting and all, but DEAR GOD make it stop.

In the two dozen odd pages that I managed to get through of Pinker’s treatise on language and how we learn it, he touches on the topic of how we, as a society, accept new words into our lexicon. Email caught on, as did gerrymander, but teledildonics didn’t (mankind’s loss, as I am sure you will agree).

As Pinker points out, we don’t even know what to call the first decade of the 2000s. (The naughties? No. No one called it that.)

One of the most salient points that comes from the whole thing is this: it’s really frigging hard to get people to universally accept new words. And yet, despite this, Cockney Rhyming Slang exists.

It makes no sense.

Are you familiar with Cockney Rhyming Slang? It’s crazy stuff. And I’m sad to admit that Wikipedia will probably do a far better job of explaining it than I will. But here’s my feeble attempt:

It originated sometime around the mid-1850s in London, and was designed so that folks could have discussions without those around them understanding what they were saying (for the record, I usually barely understand what’s going on around me, anyway, so it would be a totally redundant measure).

Here’s basically how it works:

  • You start with a word. Let’s say “stairs.”
  • You take a phrase that rhymes with that word. For stairs, there’s “apples and pears.” (This is the part that confuses me, because I don’t know how these words are arrived at. I mean, lots of stuff rhymes with stairs.)
  • Then you DROP the rhyming word from the phrase, and just use the remaining one. In this case, you keep “apples”.
  • So now stairs = apples. So in Cockney Rhyming Slang (or CRS), one would say, “I’m heading up the apples.”

I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. This is actually how CRS evolved. And it changes and evolves to reflect current events. For example, to get into a “barney” means to get into trouble. Because “barney” actually refers to “Barney Rubble”, whose rhymes with trouble.

WTF, England.

And yes, it still lives on today. Rand and I saw this on a menu at an Indian restaurant in London:

Can you guess what a “Ruby Murray” is? Sometimes it’s just called a “ruby” (it originates from the name of an Irish singer who was popular in the UK in the 1950s). To be fair, the description of the dish kind of gives it away.

Here it is!

Yup. A “ruby murray” is a curry.

I know.

To me, it’s unfathomable. I can’t even get people to call me by my correct name (Jennifer, Gabrielle, Genevieve, and Gretchen have all be directed at me in the past by desperate coworkers and new acquaintances trying to get my attention). But here is a whole subset of the English language derived from totally non-intuitive origins that is so universally known in England that IT APPEARS ON MENUS TO SHEER BEFUDDLEMENT OF TOURISTS.

I know what you’re thinking, and I had the same realization: we NEED this in America. You’re with me, right? Here’s how we get it started. “Drinking straws” rhymes with “panties and a bra.” So we’ll just nix the bra part, and a straw is now panties.

So next time you order a drink, be sure to ask the bartender to put some panties in it. I see no downside to this.

Or maybe I’m going to get us all into a huge barney. But at least it won’t be boring.

Leave a Comment

  • I’m having such a Steffi Graf all Jack Jones here after reading this… I can’t Adam and Eve it…

  • Janet T

    no,no no, not going there. I have enough trouble making myself understood and trying to understand what those around me are saying without guessing what words they might mean.

    WTF England, indeed

    I think the first time I saw/heard this was the wonderful Mr. Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven.

  • My brain hurts now.
    But it kind of makes that scene from Austin Powers where he’s talking to his dad (and then he SHAT ON A TURTLE) make more sense. Or at least, I don’t feel bad about myself because I don’t know what the H they’re talking about.

  • Dawn Shepard

    I remember hearing Don Cheadle say this in Ocean’s Eleven,
    “So unless we intend to do this job in Reno, we’re in barney… Barney Rubble… Trouble!”

    Now I want to watch the movie again!

  • A ha ha ha. I’m a Brit, so I can Steffi Graf (laugh) at this right? Nope, we don’t Adam and Eve (believe) it either. We just memorise the common ones so we can go out for dinner in London without feeling like a tourist. My favourites are the more modern ones, like “it’s all gone a bit Pete Tong” meaning “it’s all gone a bit wrong”. Incidentally, I have a friend with a dog called Ruby – so named bacause she was found abandoned outside an Indian Restaurant.

    • Molly

      Your friend has amazing taste — that is a phenomenal name for a dog, and a great story. That’s it, I’m naming the next dog I find near a coffee shop Al Pacino.

  • Andi

    Great post. I used to live in North London and often I would hear kids talking and I would not understand half of what they were saying. Reminds me of a more difficult pig latin…

  • Heidi

    As an English language teacher I was trying to explain this to someone (Spanish) yesterday in the lesson. They couldn’t understand it at all, zero, nada. I suppose if you’ve grown up with it, it’s second nature. Coming from the north of England we sometimes have our own variations, but the ones I use most often are:

    My plates are sore (plates of meat = feet)
    Bloody hell I’m Hank (Hank Marvin = starving)
    That guy’s syrup’s a bit dodgy (syrup of figs = wig)

    My ex used to say a lot “Ooooh my Chalfonts are playing up” (Chalfont St Giles = piles). Charming…

  • Bettina

    Here is a link to a German website about Cockney Rhyming Slang ATM machines in London

    Even if you don’t speak German you will understand. Enjoy

  • Ms. HalfEmpty

    Actually, they do call the 2000s the naughties in New Zealand, as I discovered while traveling last summer. The radio announcers would say that they were playing music from the “eighties, nineties, and naughties.”

  • “It likes watching a documentary on space while having someone scream into your ear and slap you repeatedly with a fish.” — hah! This sounds like my experience of watching “Tree of Life.”

    Thanks for the laugh. I needed it today.

    And also, have you seen this?


  • Karen Dorko

    Nobby Stiles – Piles

  • Haha, love this post. I studied in Northumberland in college and this was quite common. I picked up a few and still find myself thinking them sometimes for a word. Guess it’s like really complicated pig Latin for the Brits. 🙂

  • This is a great read, I’m an adopted Brit and rhyming slang is one of the many fascinations of that amazing country! The one that always sticks in my head is often levied at politicians…porkies. Hahaha not that they eat too many but that they tell too many..pork pies.

  • There is one for Americans too but I won’t go there…

  • New Cockney Rhyming Slang still gets made up and used all the time.

    One very popular phrase in common use is “It’s all gone a bit Pete Tong” wrong

    Pete Tong is a veteran dance DJ on the UK’s Radio 1.

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