Cockney: Soon to be Brown Bread?

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Some call it a language, some think of it as a type of person, and some even consider it a way of life. So what exactly is cockney? And is it really close to extinction? Oh, and by the way, brown bread means ‘dead’. More on that later.

Famous Cockney: Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin – Image via Wikipedia

Those who aren’t from London or the UK will likely be familiar with cockneys whether they know it or not. Mary Poppins is the most famous international movie to feature a cockney (if not a real one): Dick Van Dyke’s Bert character speaking in that dubious accent? That was cockney (though some branded it ‘mockney’). also cites celebrities including Phil Collins, David Beckham and Charlie Chaplin as cockneys, although some would say you have to be born within the sound of the Bow Bells (which still ring to this day from St Mary-le-Bow church in east London) to be truly considered one. The image of a cockney is of a working-class Londoner not shy of manual labor, and Roy Porter, author of London: A Social History takes the description further: “The true cockney was smart, wearing flash attire, perhaps a battered silk hat… bright, sharp, never-say-die, streetwise, sturdy optimism in his unwavering determination not only to make the best of things as they are, but to make them seem actually better than they are…” Anyone seen Beckham sporting a battered silk hat recently?

Central to cockney life are the words that come out of their mouths (cockney by the way can be used as a noun for the language and those who speak it). The accent is a broad, outstanding one, with prominent traits such as dropping consonants from the beginning of words (like Bert when he sings “But I feel what’s to ‘appen, all ‘appened before…!”, and use of the glottal stop (dropping pees, tees and kays to make wa’er instead of water, or li’le instead of little). J.C. Wells’ exploration into cockneys and their language also notes ‘monophthongization’; turning a world like ‘south’ into ‘sauf’. But this is only one aspect. The other trait of the cockney language is its distinctive ‘rhyming slang’; a kind of code is employed whereby the usual word is replaced with a rhyming phrase of two or three words (so ‘stairs’ becomes ‘apples and pairs’, for instance). Often the secondary rhyming word is omitted, so ‘Chevy’ translates as ‘face’ (Chevy Chase). Got it?

Cockney: "Piers Plowman" by William Langland

"Piers Plowman" by William Langland - Image via Wikipedia

Where did cockney rhyming slang originate? And, for that matter, why? Tony Scott, a Londoner now living in the States, claims that the singular use of rhyming slang came about in 1824 and was “to hide the true meaning of discussions from both the police and the nonces (informers for the police).” Whether or not this is true, cockneys themselves have been around for a lot longer; the first known use of the term was in William Langland’s 1362 work The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman; here he uses it to describe a cock’s egg, obviously a strange thing in its own right, and a word that would later be used by the likes of satirist Samuel Rowlands to describe the community of east Londoners, whom many outsiders viewed as somewhat strange.

How is the cockney language faring today? Not too well, alas, and this decline has been going on some time now. A piece in Time Out London attributes much of this to two significant historical events: the slum clearances of the mid-19thcentury, arguably a good thing, but one which did much to disperse working-class communities; and the Blitz of the Second World War, which destroyed many more cockney homes, and led to more of them fleeing the East End and taking their language with them. More recently, gentrification of houses in London’s East End and a hike in their prices has had further impact. To underline this effect, a recent survey by the Museum of London found that 80% of Londoners do not understand cockney rhyming slang.

Cockney: Pearly King and Queen Attire

Pearly King and Queen Attire - Image via Wikipedia

But there is hope for cockneys and their language yet. Cinema hasn’t totally eschewed cockney since the days of Mary Poppins; you’ll still hear use of it in films like Sexy Beast, V for Vendetta and even Flushed Away. The internet too, has brought about something of a renaissance in use of rhyming slang. Entire dictionaries like are accessible, and they’re taken seriously, too; the British Library Web Archive features this particular site. Perhaps the most promising thing about this internet interest is that people are continuing to create their own rhyming slang. Want to take a guess at what putting on your ‘Baracks’ means? Barack Obamas – Pajamas. Of course.

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