Not many people know this, but I am a Cockney. Phew… I feel better now I’ve shared that with you. The term Cockney is applied as a demonym (that’s a posh word, ‘invented’ around 1995-2000, for people who live in a particular location) and for Cockneys, it applies to people from defined areas of London – namely East Enders or to those born within the sound of Bow Bells.
The Cockney dialect is the form of speech used in those areas and elsewhere, particularly among working-class Londoners. Technically, you can only be a Cockney if you were born in the East End of the city. To be really specific, you must have been born within the sound of Bow Bells – that’s the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside. Wikipedia defines a cockney as: “A Cockney is a certain type of Londoner, particularly of the working or lower-middle classes, who speaks a distinctive dialect of English.”
The early development of Cockney vocabulary is obscure but appears to have been heavily influenced by Essex and related eastern dialects, while borrowings from Yiddish, including kosher (originally Hebrew, via Yiddish, meaning legitimate) and stumm (originally German, via Yiddish, meaning mute or silent) reflect the influence of those groups on the development of the speech.
Etymologically, where does the word Cockney come from? Good question: in 1362, the word was used to mean “a small, misshapen egg“, from Middle English coken + ey (“a cock’s egg”). Originally, when London consisted of little more than the walled city, the term applied to all Londoners, which lingered into the 19th century. As the city grew, the definitions shifted to alternatives based on more specific geography, or of dialect.
The terms “East End of London” and “within the sound of Bow bells” are often used interchangeably, and the bells are a symbol of East End identity. The area within earshot of the bells changes with the wind. It has been estimated that, before the noise of traffic, the sound of the Bow Bells reached about 6 miles (10 km) to the east, 5 miles (8 km) to the north, 4 miles (6 km) to the west, and 3 miles (5 km) to the south. Most London’s East End hospitals fall within that jurisdiction – Whitechapel Hospital is definitely included.
A 2012 study showed that in the 19th century, and under typical conditions, the sound of the bells would carry as far as Clapton, Bow and Stratford in the east but only as far as Southwark to the south and Holborn in the west. An earlier study suggested the sound would have carried even further. The 2012 study showed that in the modern era, noise pollution means that the bells can only be heard as far as Shoreditch. According to legend, Dick Whittington heard the bells 4.5 miles away at the Highgate Archway in what is now north London. The studies mean that it is credible that Whittington might have heard them on one of the infrequent days that the wind blows from the south.
There is a playful distortion of the English language known as Cockney Rhyming Slang. The “secret” language is thought to have originated in the 1840s among street traders (costermongers) as a means of concealing their often dodgy dealings from the then newly formed police force – while laughing at their expense. Whatever its origins, phrases like “have a butcher’s” (butcher’s hook = look) and “telling porkies” (pork pies = lies) have given the cockney language a rich dimension.
The mythical, imaginary Land of Cockaigne (a land of contraries, where all the restrictions of society are defied: abbots are beaten by their monks, sexual liberty is open and food is so plentiful that the skies rain with cheese) may have been the source of the word under a variety of spellings, including Cockayne, Cocknay, and Cockney. The word “Cockaigne” comes from the Middle French phrase pais de cocaigne, which literally means “the land of plenty.”
Worryingly, the present meaning of Cockney comes from its use among rural Englishmen in around 1520 as a pejorative term for effeminate town-dwellers, from an earlier general sense (encountered in “The Reeve’s Tale” of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in 1386). By 1600, the word Cockney was particularly associated with the Bow Bells area. The traditional core districts of the East End include Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Haggerston, Aldgate, Shoreditch, the Isle of Dogs, Hackney, Hoxton, Bow and Mile End. The informal definition of the East End gradually expanded to include towns in south-west Essex such as East Ham, Leyton, Plaistow, Stratford, Barking, Wanstead, Walthamstow and West Ham as these formed part of London’s growing conurbation.
Cockney Money Slang
There are scads of Cockney slang for money. Much of it comes from the designs on the notes – five pounds, ten pounds, twenty pounds. But first, you must learn that five pounds is a fiver, and ten pounds is a tenner. £20 is a Score, £25 is a Pony, £100 is a Ton, £500 is a Monkey, and £1,000 is a Grand.
Picture Credit: “ Wide Boy” by Flickstone is licensed under CC BY NC-ND 2.0
Take a trip to the website source given above and you will discover a new world of money you never knew existed, such as:
- £1 As in “Can you lend us a Lost and Found mate?”
- £1 As in “Lend us a Nicker mate”
- £1 (nicker) As in “Go down the pound shop – everything’s only a Nicker” (based on Alan Whicker)
- £10 (Cock and Hen) As in “You don’t get much change from a Cock and Hen for a pint of Pig’s Ear in this Battle Cruiser (Boozer)”
- £10 pounds (tenner) As in “You got that Bill and Benner you owe me?”
- £1,000 (Grand) As in “a Bag of Sand”
- £15 (a Commodore) As in “Lend us a Commodore mate.” Or Fifteen pounds is three times a Lady (Lady Godiva) which is slang for fiver.
- £20 (a Score) As in “Come on love, it’s only a Score!” £20 (score) As in “It cost me a Bobby Moore”
- £20 (Score) As in “Apple Core” 50 pence – As in “Lend me a Cow’s Calf for my bus fare.” From Cow’s Calf meaning half – half a Quid.
Or you try to ‘Learn the Cockney accent with a Jason Statham’ look-alike), here.
Many think Joe Brown was a Cockney, but no – he was actually born in Lincolnshire.
Rhyming Slang works by taking a common word and using a rhyming phrase of two or three words to replace it. For example, instead of using the work ‘look’, the rhyming phrase ‘butchers hook’ is used, would you Adam and Eve it? This type of slang was first used in the early 19th century in the East End of London – hence its alternative name, Cockney rhyming slang. The effect is simple – the origin and the meaning of the phrase becomes a complete mystery except to listeners who are ‘in the know’.
Some examples are listed below. There are hundreds more. Many terms are based on popular culture and are updated according to changing fashions. These are well-established, and easily recognised but I have excluded others either for lack of space or because they have a rather rude, racial, pejorative. or downright unpleasant connotation or might offend. I hope you recognise some of them…
- “Apples and pears” (stairs)
- “Adam and Eve – (believe)
- “Army and navy” (gravy)
- “Bees and honey” (money)
- “Borrow and beg” (egg)
- “Bottle and stopper” (copper)
- “Box of toys” (noise)
- “Brahms and List” (pissed/drunk)
- “Bristol” – short for Bristol City FC (titty/breast), usually plural
- “Coals and coke” (broke)
- “Collar and cuff” (puff)
- “Crowded space” (suitcase)
- “Cut and carried” (married)
- “Cuts and scratches” (matches)
- “Day’s a-dawning” (morning)
- “Derry and Toms” (bombs)
- “Didn’t ought” (port)
- “Duck and dive” (hide)
- “Dustbin lid/s” (kid/s)
- “Early hours” (flowers)
- “Gay and hearty” (a party)
- “Give and take” (cake)
- “Gregory Peck” (neck)
- “Half-inch” (pinch/(steal)
- “Hank Marvin” (starving”)
- “Helter-skelter” (an air-raid shelter)
- “Light and dark” (park)
- “Lion’s lair” (chair)
- “Loaf” – short for loaf of bread (head)
- “Loop the loop” (soup)
- “Lump of ice” (advice)
- “Lump of lead” (the head)
- “Lump of school” (fool/idiot)
- “Merry-go-round” (pound)
- “Mutt and Jeff” (deaf)
- “Near and far” (bar)
- “Oily rag” (a fag)
- “On the floor” (poor)
- “Pleasure and pain” (rain)
- “Tea leaf” (thief)
- “Whistle and flute” (suit)
The connection of Cockney with the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside is the one I like best. Apart from the first few months of my life, after birth in Whitechapel Hospital, which were spent in London, Sussex has been my home, perhaps because I had no wish to be called an ‘effeminate town dweller’. My tip of the day, if you plan to visit the East End of London, is – don’t call the market traders in Petticoat Lane effeminate town dwellers. Ignore this tip at your peril, unless you are interested in a hospital stay.
Pearly Kings and Queens
Pearly Kings and Queens, known as pearlies, are an organised charitable tradition of working-class culture in the east-end of London. You probably would also think about the pearlies when you think of cockneys. The Pearly Kings and Queens are famous as an East End institution, but that is not wholly correct as they are found in other places across London, including Peckham and Penge in south London.
Henry Croft, the first Pearly King
The practice of wearing clothes decorated with mother-of-pearl buttons is first associated with Henry Croft (1861-1930), an orphan street sweeper and rat catcher who collected money for charity. At the time, London Costermongers (street traders) were in the habit of wearing trousers decorated at the seams with pearl buttons that had been found by market traders. In the late 1870s, Croft adapted this to create a sequin suit to draw attention to himself and aid his fund-raising activities. In 1911, an organised pearly society was formed in Finchley, north London.
When Henry Croft died in January 1930, his funeral was attended by 400 followers and received national media coverage. In 1934 a memorial, referring to him as “The original Pearly King” was unveiled in St. Pancras Cemetery, and in a speech to mark the occasion, it was said he had raised £5,000 for those suffering in London’s hospitals.
The pearlies are now divided into several active groups. Croft’s founding organisation is called the Original London Pearly Kings and Queens Association. It was reformed in 1975 and holds the majority of the original pearly titles, which are City of London, Westminster, Victoria, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Shoreditch, Islington, Dalston and Hoxton. Other groups have also been established over the years. The oldest is the Pearly Guild, which began in 1902. Modern additions include the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society, which started in 2001and the Pearly Kings and Queens Guild. Despite the rivalries, each group is associated with a church in central London and is committed to raising money for London-based charities. A parade of real-life Pearly Kings and Queens was featured at the 2012 London Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony.
On Derby Day, one of the great traditions at the Epsom horseracing course on the southern outskirts of London is the arrival of the Pearly King and Queen in their decorated donkey-cart. The distinctive costumes of the Pearlies are said to have sprung from the arrival of a big cargo of pearl-buttons from Japan in the 1860s.
You might wonder what they are and where mother of pearl buttons come from – they are iridescent buttons made from an inner layer of certain shells, especially shells of oysters and mussels that contain nacre, the mineral substance that forms pearls.
Listen: Have a butcher’s hook at this video with your china plates. Not sure what this means? Learn how to speak Cockney rhyming slang with Anglophenia’s Kate Arnell, just click here to find out more.
Or try this: ‘A LONDONER Explains How to Speak COCKNEY’. Click here to become an expert, in next to no time.
Sources and Further Information
Picture Credit: “Viz Comic: ‘Cockney W*nker ‘ #Diana Memorial Flowers only £25 a bunch: #RoyalFamily – ‘She was Queen of Hearts’” by norbet1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Study by 24 Acoustics for the Times Atlas of London https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/bow-bells-to-be-given-audio-boost-to-curb-decline-of-cockneys-7880794.html ↑
Croft was born at the St Pancras Workhouse in Somers Town, London. He was raised in an orphanage after his father, a musician, died in around 1871. He worked as a municipal road sweeper from around 1876, employed by St Pancras vestry and later St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council until the 1920s. Croft started to wear his pearly suit to raise money for charity in the late 1870s. The origin of the pearly tradition is obscure. Croft began to decorate his clothes with mother-of-pearl buttons, which were mass-produced at factories in the East End of London. Source: Wikipedia. ↑