What's the origin of Cockney rhyming slang?

I’ve heard it was originally a way for London street merchants to communicate publically without revealing that they were dealing in black market goods & so on. Seems to me I’ve heard other explanations though…a 'net search didn’t turn up any authoritative sources.

I couldn’t find anything authoritative either but that has never prevented me from wildly speculating as I am about to do below.

I find the merchant explanation wanting. The rhyming scheme seems too elaborate for such mundane use. One website I found described it as an example of a common practice to use special language terms to exclude outsiders – kind of a super jargon. This seems more plausible to me, particularly given the lengthy list of body parts and functions described. It seems like this would be something created by adolescents to distance themselves from their parents and other “squares” (to use a term with similar origins). In this case, though, it was so clever that it was adopted by the entire group.

For people engaged in certain activities it is very convenient to have a language which is easily understood by your cronies and not understood by bystanders. Criminals and conniving merchants would benefit from this, and no doubt the rhyming slang was used as applicable. But the slang seems too easily decoded to really be serviceable for clandestine activities.

When I was a teenager we had words and nicknames we used which we thought were impenetrable to anyone who wasn’t part of our group. I’ve forgotten most of them but “zoot” was our term for breast (and I’m sure no one but us knew what we meant when we said “Check out her zoots!”) and we honestly thought “nookie” was our very own secret word for sex. My bubble was burst on that one when I overheard my dad tell the joke about the difference between a Japanese liquor cabinet and a kimono – one is a nook full of sake and the other is a sack full of nookie.

Cockney rhyming slang is (obviously) superior to our feeble attempts but my guess is that its origin is similar.

BTW, the BBC was apparently on the lookout for rhyming slang references on their radio shows – the Goon Show was not allowed to have a character named Hugh Jampton.

In Chambliss’ Box Man: a Professional Thief’s Journey, Harry King describes what he calls Australian Slang, which was apparently in use when he was in prison. He said you could make illicit talk this way, and you would sound like you were talking about nothing at all.

I read somewhere else, and I can’t remember the source, that the American underworld describes this as Australian because they learned it from Australian criminals, but that it actually goes back to Cockney.

So, apparently, it was used as some kind of secret language at least in American prisons at the time that Harry King (or whatever his real name was) did time, which would have probably been the sixties.

A little bit Ot, I must opologize. This reminds me of an old language called Thieve’s Cant. That was the techinical term for it, at least. It was a language that used familiar words but with new meanings, to camoflage the actual meaning.

Example- “Did you hear about Tom? He used up an Abram man, and now he is in the boarding school.”

Translation-“Tom killed a beggar, and now he is in jail.”

It is easy to hide conversations this way. I believe thieves and other lowlifes in Britain first came up with it. However, I could be wrong.

According to the Oxford Companion to the English Language:

You people are obviously serious students of the English language. If you take the time to review this link, “Roger’s Profanisaurus”, you will probably find some rude cockney rhyming slang.

I don’t have the time to review this extremely rude dictionary. It does mention “felch” and “feltchmeister”. Warning - this humour is the opposite of politically correct…


My $0.02, for what it’s worth.

In the fascinating book “Gangs Of New York” by Herbert Asbury (pub. 1920’s, paperback reprint soon to appear),
the author provides a glossary of 19th century underword
slang and there are a couple of rhyming expressions. I can
only remember one right now–“Cain and Abel” for “Chair and table”.

So evidently there was some use of rhyming slang over here too.

Although I grew up in a ‘nice’ little town my father, and especially Grandfather, were from that manor (the East End). I used a little slang growing up without even knowing it was slang – everyone around us said things like “Let’s have a butchers” = (Let’s have a butchers hook/look).

Don’t really know the absolute true origin but it is from the East End and I’ve always thought it was a way for street traders and small time villains to communicate without incriminating themselves. Most obviously, something like “Picked up some nice Tom” would mean “I stole some jewellery, are you interested” (Jewellery = Tom Foolery). Still in use, often by people with East or South East London origins.

Australian humour - and culture in general - has more in common with London than the wider country because that’s where many of the original err ‘settlers’ came from. The Aussie accent is, in my view, an extention of, and developed from, the London accent. I’ve got ‘American’ (slang = ‘Septic’ - Septic Tank/Yank) pegged as a little more Irish in it’s roots but i’d better leave that for the linguists.

On that basis,it’s i suppose it’s no surprise that the Aussies developed a version of rhyming slang.

The influence of the argot of the London underworld is unmistakable, but it’s also interesting to note the influence of other cultures. Shiv, a word for a small easily concealed knife, comes from the Gypsies. Cannon meaning a pickpocket is a whimsical superlative of gun meaning the same, which comes from the Yiddish goniff, meaning thief. The terms mack and pimp both derive from McGimp, the personification of your archetypal Irish panderer.

While I can’t recall the exact text, the DVD version of the movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) had as one of its special features, a nice explanation of the origins of Cockney rhyming slang, as well as a number of examples. If you have a DVD player I recommend you check it out next time you have a chance.

Al, I wouldn’t put too much credence in the Profanisaurus. Although probably the most brilliant work of humour from the last ten years, clearly at least 50% of the really funny entries are made up by the staff at Viz (probably more like 60% for the rhyming slang).

There are many genuine references, but I think the main aim is actually to introduce slang words into the English language rather than record existing words.

I would bet most of the “classic” cockney rhyming slang is actually dervived from Fleet Street circulation wars.

Once a publication, say in Victorian times, got hold of a popular topic, the actual currency of a phrase would be less important than its use as a reliable article topic.

They would do as today, and try to get Man-on-the-street comments from locals. Stick a reporter’s pad in front of an old rocking chair by the potbelly stove crowd, and they would be making up more rhymes than you could write down. Many would be phoney, but some would be reported in a column the next day and achieve “recieved” status instantly.

This is how the word Quiz arose, by appearing to be a word, and being discussed in the press until it was.