As alarmist headlines go, they were pretty puzzling. “Teenagers Aren’t Bobby Moore About Their Ruby Murrays and Their Rosie Lee,” fretted one British tabloid this week. “Is Cockney Rhyming Slang Brown Bread?” asked another. The Guardian was just about ready to call it, whatever it was: “Cockney Rhyming Slang Is Nearly Brown Bread.”
The savvy reader might have pieced together from context clues that “brown bread” referred to “dead,” and that young people were somehow to blame. The youth, as youth are wont to do, were threatening tradition—in this case the roughly 150-year-old practice, associated with the East Londoners also known as Cockneys, of substituting rhyming names or phrases like “Bobby Moore” for common words like “sure.”
So what was the source of all this anxiety? A survey commissioned by the Rosy Lee tea company (“The Londoners’ Tea—warming the cockles of ya heart!”), and conducted by the market research agency ICM Unlimited, which found that Britons under the age of 25 in some cases had more trouble correctly defining slang phrases than their over-45 counterparts. Forty percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 didn’t know that “Rosy Lee” was Cockney slang for “tea,” but more than 90 percent of respondents older than 45 got it right. The over-45s were similarly more likely to know that “Ruby Murray” meant “curry.” Other terms confused people across the age spectrum, notably “coals and coke” for “smoke,” and “merry-go-round” for “pound.” A partner at the tea company said in a press release: “The older respondents got their Hampstead Heath [teeth] right into Rosy Lee and they found that one really Lemon Squeezy [easy] but Coles and Coke and Early Hours [flowers] clearly made more than a few people scratch their Loaves [of bread, for heads].” Indeed.
Slang terms, almost by definition, don’t bear straightforward connections to the concepts they describe—what is “on fleek” and why is it a desirable quality?—but in the Cockney case the chain from the slang term to the object it describes can be especially convoluted. It’s relatively simple to trace how “China plate” becomes “mate,” but sometimes you have to go through several more steps, including dropped rhymes, half-words, and slang terms for other slang terms, to get anything resembling the original idea.
Witness “ala,” for “posterior,” the personal favorite of Jonathon Green, a London-based lexicographer and the author of a three-volume dictionary of slang. Ala is short for alabaster. Alabaster is a material related to plaster of Paris. Paris rhymes with Aris, which is short for Aristotle. Aristotle rhymes with bottle. Bottle is short for bottle and glass, which rhymes with ass or arse (itself a slang term). “Finally,” Green told me, “after this long and complex, and possibly absurd, road that we’ve traveled, we get to the standard English ‘buttocks.’”
Whimsical, yes. But there are rules, or at least there were in the early days of the form in the 19th century. Technically it’s not “rhyming slang” if you substitute “giraffe” for “laugh” just because the first word rhymes with the second, said Green. The rhyme should come from a phrase or compound, or a full name—“bottle and stopper” for “copper” in the sense of a policeman, or “Germaine Greer,” the feminist scholar, for “beer.” A true pro would obscure the meaning further by dropping the part of the phrase that actually rhymes, thus: “I’ll take a pint of Germaine, and one for my China here.”
When John Camden Hotten—whom Green described in his book Cassell’s Rhyming Slang as “a bookseller, pornographer, and slang lexicographer”— first documented the phenomenon of rhyming slang in his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, these rules basically held. (Green attributes to that book the first appearance of the phrase “rhyming slang,” but it also serves as a guide to “long and windy slang words” like “slantingdicular” as well as “parliamentary slang” and “military and dandy slang.”) The form had a limited vocabulary of perhaps a hundred examples at the time; Green estimates it’s now grown to more than 3,000 phrases.
As for why anyone would bother to choose from, by Green’s count, 18 different inscrutable terms for tea (“Mother McCree,” “sailors on the sea,” “split pea,” etc.), rather than just saying tea, there are a few different versions of the rhyming-slang creation myth—including the notion that it was invented by criminals using a form of verbal encryption to confound the police. “The most popular idea,” Green said, “is from East End market traders known as costermongers—from costard apples, but they sold a lot more than costard apples. ... Given that rhyming slang is so intertwined with the Cockney image, the London East End image, I’m sure that that’s the right one. But the interesting thing is that you actually had a moment of creation. Most slang just comes out of nowhere.”
And whereas rhyming slang does deal with what Green calls “the usual slang themes” of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—“I mean that figuratively, obviously ... but I would reckon that there are about 10,000 words and phrases falling into that group”—it also has space for domestic topics. “One of the earliest ones is ‘trouble and strife,’ which means the wife.”
Green is skeptical that the survey results are a grim harbinger for the future of Cockney rhyming slang; among other things, he views the media coverage in the wake of the survey as evidence of the opposite conclusion. “The simple fact that so many people are interested in rhyming slang just shows that for better or for worse, it certainly isn’t dead,” Green told me. Which doesn’t mean it’s stayed true to its origins. The early rhyming slang has what Green called “an internal wit. ... I mean, all right, it’s stereotyped, but you know there’s your Cockney bloke, you know, wheeling his barrow. ... He talks about the trouble, the trouble and strife, because the wife gives him a hard time.”
He continued: “When you arrive at 2015 and you have things like ‘Posh and Becks’”—a reference to Victoria Beckham, a.k.a. Posh Spice, and her soccer-star husband David—“rhyming with sex, I for one think, why do I do my job? I don’t want to know this.”