We previously published a post on rhyming slang, where we outlined a few typical local phrases that you might be most likely to hear as a new arrival in London. The examples we picked out in that blog might be regarded as ‘classics’; enduring rhyming slang favourites that will probably never drop out of widespread, if occasional, usage.
The thing with rhyming slang (and indeed with most street dialects), though, is that obscuring their precise meaning is basically the whole point. After all, if everyone could easily use and understand it, then it would quickly cease to be of any value.
The origins of England’s rhyming slang culture – often referred to as cockney rhyming slang, although its early popularity extended far beyond the specific area of East London that strictly defines ‘cockney’ – are much debated. Scholars tend to suggest it evolved for a variety of reasons, including helping to muddy the waters when operating outside of the law (as a significant proportion of slang always has, in fact).
However, most social and linguistic historical accounts agree that its main purpose was always to help separate the ‘insiders’ from the ‘outsiders’, culturally speaking – in other words, using rhyming slang identifies you as one of the locals. This means that, by its very nature, rhyming slang will always be evolving: it has to, in order to remain just beyond the full grasp of anyone observing from afar.
Of course, certain popular phrases eventually became canonical, and achieved much wider usage. You might very well hear somebody say apples and pears (stairs), trouble and strife (wife) or donkey’s ears (years) pretty much anywhere in the UK today. These are the sorts of ‘classic’ examples we mentioned at the beginning of this post.
But in order for rhyming slang or any other street dialect to retain its value for those that identify with it, newer and less well-known variants will constantly need to be introduced. And as more modern slang dictionaries will show, the result is that, at any given moment in time, rhyming slang will contain dozens of seemingly alien words and phrases that were completely unheard of twenty years earlier. Likewise, in another twenty years it will have expanded dramatically again, and so on.
Hearing Londoners today use strikingly 20th- and 21st-century rhyming slang phrases like Britney Spears (tears) or Wallace and Gromit (vomit) might seem jarring at first, especially when they fall alongside such pointedly Victorian examples as Barnaby Rudge (judge) or Barnet fair (hair). But that’s precisely the point,
really: in decades to come, those modern variants may well be considered just as evocative of their own time as the more traditional examples sound to us now.
And so, in conclusion, if you’re moving to the capital from elsewhere, you’re probably never going to feel that you’ve quite got a handle on rhyming slang the way born-and-bred Londoners do. Because, on a fundamental level, that’s essentially why they use it. Take heart though, as you’re
certainly not going to be the only one: in fact, a 2012 study appeared to show that most modern Londoners haven’t got the foggiest idea what half of it means either!