Fraser’s Phrases: A Rhyming Slang Special

The Artful Dodger from 'Oliver!'

As requested after our trip to the knacker’s yard, here’s a brief explanation of Cockney rhyming slang, which should serve to explain a few of the phrases kicking around the British end of the English language.

As with any code language, from polari to pig latin, the point of rhyming slang is for two people to be able to hold a conversation in the earshot of anyone, without outsiders being able to work out what is being said. Most commonly this is because if they knew what you meant, you could get into trouble.

To be considered a proper Cockney, you’d have to be born in the East End of London, traditionally within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church – the Bow bells of the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.” And Cockney rhyming slang is thought to have originated among the East End street sellers in Seven Dials, which is in Westminster, at the western side of central London. So it’s tempting to assume the rhyming slang originated as a way for market traders and street sellers to talk to each other privately, in front of their customers. It could also have some connection to petty larceny.

In any case, there’s a common format to a lot of the expressions used. You start with the word you want to say – hair, for example – then find a thing that rhymes with it, often taken from a nearby environment – oh, Barnet Fair, isn’t that somewhere around here? – and then you lop off the rhyming bit. This leaves you with the word barnet, which is a geniune cockney rhyming slang term for hair.

And the search for new variations on this theme continues. If you’re looking for a way to say you’re hungry, you could say you’re Hank, as in Hank Marvin, the guitarist with the Shadows, because his surname rhymes with starving. And if you wanted to buy some food, but you only had a ten pound note, you’d be paying with an Ayrton. Because Ayrton Senna = tenner.

Here are some other examples:

Boat = boat race = face
Bread = bread and honey = money
Butcher’s = butcher’s hook = look (as in “let’s have butcher’s at his barnet”)
Loaf = loaf of bread = head

And there’s a load more (including all of the dirty ones) over here.

All of which leads to the answer to the question I was asked in the first place, why are Americans called septics?

That’s a double slang: septic tank = yank.

Sorry if that seems a smidge offensive. Cockneys aren’t very polite.

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Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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