The ultimate Cockney Rhyming slang glossary – do you know where these phrases come from?

Don’t be a lump of school - discover the reasoning behind the rhymes before you get Scotch mist tonight

Most of us know that “china plate” is Cockney rhyming slang for mate, “brown bread” for dead, and “bubble bath” for laugh. But interestingly, sometimes the historic native wit of this East End community (and its followers around the world) takes things a step further with the meaning itself being carried across.

Check out the examples below to see how the rhymes are actually rooted in logical meaning:

“apples and pears” – stairs

… to the Cockney, the phrase ‘steps and stairs’ describes gradation. Every good costermonger has expertise in arranging ‘the front’ of his stall. The selected samples of fruit and vegetables are skillfully graded in ‘steps and stairs’. Apples and pears, when in season, are common on each barrow and, when polished, give a particularly rewarding front

“army and navy” – gravy

… as gravy was plentiful at mealtimes in both services

“basin of gravy” – baby

… suggestive of the softness of the foods on which babies are fed

“bees and honey” – money

… as bees are the epitome of work, work produces money, and the possession of which is sweet

“borrow and beg” - egg 

… a term that enjoyed a fresh lease of life during the Second World War and the food-rationing period

“bottle and stopper” – copper (policeman)

… there are a possible pair of inferences: to bottle meaning to enclose, and a stopper meaning one who holds another back from a course of action

“box of toys” – noise

… as a box of toys, particularly a new one given as a present at Christmas time, causes a great deal of noise to be made

“can’t keep still” – treadmill

… since people sentenced to that particular act of 19th Century employment were most unlikely to keep still for a second

“clever mike” – bike

… influenced by the extreme displays that adolescents are inclined to perform on a bicycle, especially when showing off

“coals and coke” – broke

… since both coal and coke used to be supplied in large blocks that had to be broken down before their use

“coat and badge” – cadge (and sometimes known as Doggett’s)

… as possessors of the Doggett Coat and Badge could charge higher fares than those without

“collar and cuff” – puff (an effeminate man)

… suggestive either by their neatness of dress, or by ‘powder puff’

“cop a flower pot” – cop it hot (get into serious trouble)

… suggested by the effect of a flower pot dropped from an window above on to someone below

“crowded space” – suitcase

… which was often ‘stolen’ during packed railway stations in the holiday season

“cut and carried” – married

… applying only to the wife who is cut off from the parental support and carried (provided for) by her husband

“cuts and scratches” – matches

… since many of the imported ‘safety’ matches were of poor quality,  and if cut and scratched against the sensitised side of the box often failed to ignite

“day’s a-dawning” – morning

… a term used exclusively for people working at nighttime

“Derry and Toms” – bombs

… referring not just to the famous London store, but to ‘derry’ as to ‘have a derry on’ meaning to dislike, referring to ‘down on’, meaning prejudiced against, from Derry Down in Ireland

“didn’t ought” – port (the drink)

… based on the imploring of ladies who, when asked to ‘have another’, replied that they ‘didn’t ought‘

“do me good(s)” – wood(s)

… short for the cigarette Woodbines which indirectly played their part in the victory of the First World War

“duck and dive” – hide

… a duck when diving is hidden beneath the pond’s surface and to duck is to avoid a blow by a quick dropping movement

“dustbin lid(s)” – kid(s)

… used when children have created a huge amount of mess

“early hours” – flowers

… as the buyers have to keep very early hours to buy their produce at Covent Garden

“fisherman’s daughter” – water

… as water is an essential part of the fisherman’s landscape

Pearly kings and queens - East End cockneys - cockney rhyming slang

“gay and hearty” – a party

… describing how a social get-together should be

“give and take” – cake

… as no cake can be eaten that has not been given (by a shopkeeper) and taken. Cake also means money, as in ‘a cake of notes’ that also needs to be given and taken

“helter-skelter” – an air-raid shelter

… referring to the speed required to run to such a refuge

“in and out” – snout

… as in the nose through which people both inhale and exhale

“light and dark” – park

… referring to the London County Council’s notice to the effect that a bell was rung, and the gates locked, at dusk

“lion’s lair” – chair

… referring to the risk caused in disturbing the father of the household when he was taking his afternoon nap in an armchair ‘of a Sunday’

“loop the loop” – soup

… referring to a late 19th Century act of daring where a performer, strapped to a wheel, whizzed round on a coiled track

“lump of ice” – advice

… which to receive sometimes can be very cold comfort

“lump of lead” – the head

… only in reference to the morning after the night before

“lump of school” – fool

… the market stall holders felt that the sooner the boy stopped reading books and gained practical experience the better

“merry-go-round” – pound (sterling)

… referring to the saying that ‘money was made round to go round’

“mozzle and brocha” – on the knocker

… Yiddish words for ‘good luck’ and ‘good health’ respectively, referring to the occupation of  door-to-door salesman (these are two of his six requirements, the other four being: good looks, temper, voice and manners)

“near and far” – bar

… as in the idea of ‘so near and yet so far’ relating to a busy pub with a throng of waiting customers

“oily rag” – a fag (cigarette)

… referring to its soiled state when smokers are employed in a mucky profession

“on the floor” – poor

… used of temporarily penniless housewives

“once a week” – beak (magistrate)

… in heady days many did see the ‘beak’ once a week as a result of excessive partying on a Saturday night

“penny-come-quick” – a trick (of confidence)

… which, if successful, caused easy money

“pig and roast” – toast

… a cynical reference to the bog-standard level of menu of the average mess for the ‘other ranks’

“pimple and blotch” – Scotch

… for which a long indulgence can have a considerable effect upon the skin

“pleasure and pain” – rain

… both a matter of pleasure for gardeners and also pain for sufferers from rheumatism

Pearly kings and queens - East End cockneys - cockney rhyming slang

“rank and riches” – breeches (riding)

… which were worn in the 19th century only by those with either wealth or a title

“rats and mice” – dice

… the appearance of dice-rolling is similar to rodents running

“rattle and clank” – bank

… suggestive of the busy handling of coins

“Scotch mist” – pissed

… the connection is very apt

“stand to attention” – pension

…  as in that due to a long-serving, retired soldier

“satin and silk” – milk

… suggestive of its smoothness

“short of a sheet” – in the street

… implying a situation of penury and hence the lack of a bed

“sugar basin” – a marble mason

… the appearance of rough white marble resembles a sugar lump and being a soft stone it is easy (ie sweet) to work with

“tick tack” – the track (horse racing)

… relating to the ‘Tic Tac’ signals made by bookmakers

“true ‘til death” – breath

… the connection is very apt

“tumble down the sink” – drink

the connection is very apt

“weep and wail” – a tale

… used exclusively in reference to a beggar’s tale

“yet to be” – free

… in the sense both of without cost, implying a part of the good time coming, and without restraint, as in the release from prison

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books, and the Tingo App Game for iPhones on Interesting Words

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