This entry was posted on Oct 05 2009 by

5 Cockney Terms I Like

At one of our old houses, we lived next door to a retired Scottish couple.  The man of the house was Bert (“Bert” is the Scottish shortening of “Robert,” so we shared a name), and he was the coolest guy you’d ever want to talk over the fence with.  We both enjoyed pop standards, so I’d bring him Michael Bublé sampler CDs from Borders, and he’d burn me Rat Pack CDs in exchange, complete with track listings written in his calligraphic style. 

Bert also shared his stories with me, maybe because everyone in his family had heard them all before.  He told me that at one point he worked at a factory in England, where many of the employees were cockney, a term that refers to individuals born within hearing distance of a particular set of London church bells (the name of which escapes me).  Cockneys have a rather unique and amusing style of slang that replaces common words with rhyming equivalents, much of which Bert picked up during his years working alongside them.  He kept a running list of cockney vocabulary for me, which he’d update whenever he recalled another phrase.  I still have the list, and looking through it I selected 5 that I find the most enjoyable (cockney appears in italics):

1. wife: trouble and strife

2. a piddle (a pee): Jimmy Riddle

3. a lie: pork pie

4. believe: Adam and Eve (“I don’t Adam and Eve it!”)

5. hands: happy lands

While most slang truncates words and phrases into shorter bursts, as you can see, cockney slang does the opposite.  The difference becomes glaring when putting sentences together: “I’m going up the apples and pears to put my loaf of bread on the weeping willow.”  The English translation of this is, “I’m going upstairs to put my head on the pillow,” or in even more concise terms, “I’m going to bed.”  17 words become 4.

Perhaps recognizing the wordiness of the jargon, cockneys do in fact truncate, but in doing so they often jettison the rhyme that established the slang term in the first place.  For example, while butcher’s hook is cockney for look, it’s often truncated during usage, so the speaker might simply say, “Have a butcher’s.”  Taking an example from the list above, the cockney plural of lie is not pies but porkies, maybe because pies is part of the rhyme for eyes (mince pies).  Confusing enough for you?  Did I mention there are also in some cases multiple rhymes for the same word?  A chancer (otherwise known as a liar) can be expressed as either a highland dancer or a Bengal lancer.

Maddening to be sure, but also a great lot of fun.  I always laughed when Bert rattled off his phrases.  Not his trouble and strife, though.  It drove her nuts.

Years ago I read a book about WWII Japanese code breakers who were befuddled by the code of their Navajo adversaries in the U.S. Marines, when pretty much all the Navajos did was communicate with each other in their native tongue.  Were there no cockneys whom Churchill could deploy against the Germans to the same effect?

One Response to “5 Cockney Terms I Like”

  1. Shannon Smith
    11:09 am on October 8th, 2009

    Have you seen the movie The Limey? It’s a must see if you like the Cockney slang. And it’s a really good movie. Soderbergh’s best in my opinion. I admit that the first time I watched it I had to rewind scenes to try and figure out what the heck he was saying.

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