Colloquial Catch-Up

Photo by  Simon Mason  

Photo by Simon Mason 

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but when it comes to the colloquial, I’m usually a decade or so behind the times, especially with the rampant rapidity with which the acronyms and portmanteau words are making the rounds in today’s popular culture. (Shout out to Rachel who took the time to explain to me about the advent, and appropriate usage, of totes magotes.)

However, I had the best sort of fun watching the video that surfaced in the week leading up to the British Grand Prix. What video, you ask?

Every new city or country that Formula One travels to, Redbull Racing puts their drivers- Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo- through a pop quiz of sorts regarding the culture of the country they will be racing in. Before the British Grand Prix, Redbull Racing posted a video where they tested Max Verstappen’s Cockney Rhyming chops, and he didn’t fare nearly as badly as he did with the Australian slang one. 

Anyway. Watching all the Cockney Rhyming phrases got my little grey cells wandering down etymological byways. (And the fact that my little grey cells percolated seems appropriate since Max Verstappen is also Belgian. Anyone out there get the literary reference?) 

How did Cockney Rhyming come to be?

Well, in order to answer that question, I ended up finding out a lot of fun little facts about Cockney and that particular word’s origin of use, and, in turn, I learned a bit about how rhyming slang came into being at all. 

The original definition of cockney (spelled cockanegs, cokeneyes, and cocknaie respectively) is an odd shaped egg, sometimes laid by the rooster rather than the hen; a cock’s egg. Phonetically, it’s not hard to see how the segue way could be made between cock’s egg and cockney. Language is fascinating in how it slants into new meaning and spelling like that. 

The second definition for cockney is an effeminate child, a mama’s boy, a milksop. The synonyms can go on and on. The one, perhaps, that has the most bearing on how it came to be associated with cockney is nestle-cock. A nestle-cock is the last-hatched bird in a brood, the runt of the litter, the weakling, in essence. We see the application of this definition in Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, “Whan this iape is told another day I sal ben halden a daf a Cokenay.” (Translation: And when this jape be told another day, I'll be a fool, a 'cockney' they will say.)

Now, let’s put this in context. The Reeve’s Tale is a fabliau, a short metrical tale in verse, usually crass and oftentimes cynical, that was popular during the Middle Ages. The Reeve’s Tale is in response to The Miller’s Tale (all of which can be found in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales), in which the miller related a story to the reeve about a carpenter who was cuckolded by his wife and her lover. Now, the reeve, formerly a carpenter, takes umbrage at this and decides that retribution is in order- hence, he constructs a fictional tale in which a miller is similarly humiliated when his wife and daughter are raped and he is beaten to a bloody pulp. (This is all really raw and bawdy stuff for the 15th century… Perhaps it’s just a prime example of how little mankind changes over the centuries.) 

Why is any of this significant to cockney? Well, the Reeve’s Tale is the first time that Chaucer attempted to incorporate an accent or dialect inflection in his writing. Ordinarily he wrote in Middle English of the southern dialect, specific to London, but in the Reeve’s Tale, he attempts to write an accent that is decidedly north of London, in the country, as it were. And why is that important? Because it leads us back down the etymologically winding road of the word cockney.

Dating back as early as the 1520s (at least, in written record, which we all know comes years and years after words and phrases have made their way into the mainstream), country folk referred to townspeople as cockneys, because the hardy stock of the country looked down their noses at the effeminacy and softness of those who plied their trade in the gentle towns and cities. It was an insult, in essence. However, it seemed to morph into a badge of honor worn by those in London. (You callin’ me a cockney? Damn straight, I’m a cockney. Born and bred… At least, that’s how I see it coming about. People do like to take pride in the place from whence they came.) By the 1600s, the term came to relate to those from London exclusively, particularly those who could hear the bow-bells- the bells in the tower of Mary-le-Bow (you may know it as Big Ben, but that’s not the name of the tower; that’s just the name of the largest bell in said tower).  According to Fynes Moryson, in his travel journal published in 1617, “Londiners, and all within the sound of Bow-bell, are in reproch (reproach) called Cocknies, and eaters of buttered tostes (toast).” Apparently, if you were an eater of buttered toast, you were held in reproach. (I had to snigger at that one, just a wee bit… Any My Fair Lady fans out there? What was you sniggerin’ at? Quoting Eliza Doolittle seemed so apropos.)

So, we have the country folk looking down their noses at the city folk, calling them cockneys, and you have the city folk taking pride in the appellation. Hop, skip, and jump to cockney rhyming slang. 

First off, rhyming slang is a cant which is (according to the OED) the secret language or jargon used by gipsies, thieves, professional beggars, etc.; transf. any jargon used for the purpose of secrecy. And, according to John Camden Hotten in his Dictionary of Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1859), “The cant, which has nothing to do with that spoken by the costermongers, is known in Seven Dials (London’s West End) and elsewhere as the Rhyming Slang, or the substitution of words and sentences which rhyme with other words intended to be kept secret.”

And that’s how cockney rhyming slang came into being. Perhaps it was to have a secret language that the country folk couldn’t understand. Or maybe it came into use so that thieves, gypsies, smugglers, beggars, and other such knavish characters could thwart the bobbies. Whatever the reason, there you have it: cockney rhyming slang. 

And, now, for a bit of fun. 

Can you determine what the true meanings of these cockney rhymes are?

  1. A Jack-surpass of finger-and-thumb
  2. Bull and Cow
  3. Weasel and Stoat
  4. Daffadown Dilly
  5. Rabbit and Pork
  6. Trouble and Strife
  7. Uncle Bert
  8. Alligator

Post your answers in the comments below. I’ll post the the answers on Friday so you can see if you nailed them. 

I’ll give two hints: In the U.S., we have a variation of bull and cow and alligator.

Happy Guessing! 

(Find the answers in the article listed below.)