Apples and Pears

Britain and America may be, as George Bernhard Shaw famously said, two countries separated by a common language, but speakers of Cockney live on an entirely different planet. At least that’s my impresssion after hoisting a couple of pints at The Golden Fleece, a pub in Queen Street.

Technically, Cockney is neither an accent nor a language, but a slang which arose in East London and is first mentioned in 1362, when it meant a ‘cock’s egg’—that is, a defective one. While many, especially foreigners, asume anyone from London is a Cockney, you really have to be born within hearing distance of the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside to qualify.

Cockney is a rhyming slang which used to be unique to the areas but since has spread around other parts of the city and England in general. Nobody knows for sure how it started and why, but one theory has it that it began as a kind of secret language among thieves and pickpockets. Another has it that it originated among costermongers and street sellers as a kind of “patter”.

Cockney rhyming slang switches a word or phrase for another that rhymes with it. Surely the most famous are probably “apples and pears” for “stairs” (“let’s get you up those apples and pears!”) and “plates of meat” for “feet” (pick up your plates of meat and get a move-on, for Chrissakes!”), but “sausage and mash” instead of “cash” (as in: “Well, seems I forgot my sausage and mash, so you’ll have to stand me this drink”), “loaf of bread” for “head”, or “pigs ear” for “beer” (“buy you a pigs ear?”) are almost as well-known. But the further you delve in the weirder it can get. “Has a fight with the trouble and strife” (“wife”, “get the dog and bone, will you?” (“phone”) or “have a dicky bird with you?” (word”) are literally unintelligible to the uninitiated, and as for a “Lady Godiva” (a five-pound note”) or “Micky Bliss” for urinating, or “skin and blister” (an endearing way to describe your sister) could be Klingonian for all a non-Cockney can tell.

Just don’t try to pass yourself off as Cockney to someone who really speaks it just because you think you are cool. To do so would be to commit the sin of “mockney” and would put you in the company of such “mockney wankers” as Jamie Oliver, Kate Nash or Guy Richie.


PS: On Quora, Michael Millard just told me about a rhyming slang word that is used by both Brits ans Aussies to makle fun of (North)Americans, namely „seppo“. It comes from „septic tank“ = Yank. I love it!

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