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Most people know that rhyming slang is a colorful addition to British English, where someone says something that is not the intended word but rhymes with it. For example,

He was brown bread.

might be understood to mean

He was dead.

When I watch British films I hear a lot of it, and some of it I get and some of it I don't. Is the expectation that some of it will be deliberately obscure, or is it just that my American ears aren't attuned to it? Are the instances that appear in movies in common usage, and so understood right away, or are they often created on the spot, verbal riffs that the listener has to think about and may or may not understand?

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I'm curious why someone would down-vote this question. –  Robusto Feb 2 '11 at 15:58
    
They probably misread it and thought it was insulting British people, or some such, or perhaps they just really dislike rhyming slang. I do hate vote downs without justification, should be compulsory. –  Orbling Feb 2 '11 at 23:42
    
I myself find the question interesting, and I was curious to know what the answer to the question was. –  kiamlaluno Feb 13 '11 at 10:37
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5 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I say it very much depends what Britons you are talking about. It is a dialectical style, found in a few places, but the most famous and that which tends to travel internationally is the East London, Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Now, most Londoners know a fair bit of it, growing up hearing it. But it depends what area of London you were brought up in, and more importantly what class you were. A lot of my friends use quite a bit of it, but not continuously like you see on films, it crops up as slang words, in the way that any other colloquialisms do.

Often, people do not know the etymology of the words they are using and do not know the rhyming part. Commonly used words such as barnet, boracic, china, cobblers, mickey, scarper and butchers are used frequently, but few know the rhyming component for them, they just use the words. Cobblers and mickey are more widely used than just London, not sure about the others.


As requested by Robusto, a brief set of rhyming expansions for the words I quoted above.

barnet -> barnet fair -> hair

Barnet Fair, was a regular horse trading fair held in the town of Barnet (my home town!), and well known by Londoners, as it was on the Great North Road, and was the major horse buying location for the capital. Further back it was the largest cattle fair in the country too.(Wikipedia)

boracic -> boracic lint -> skint

Boracic lint was an often used dressing for wounds, lint soaked in boracic acid. It rhymes with skint anyhow, which means pennyless, broke. Note, we don't pronounce it boracic, it is pronounced as brassic, possibly due to people thinking that there is a link to the word brass, considering the financial connotations. (brass is a slang term for money, particularly coinage - reinforced by the proverb "Where there's muck, there's brass.")(Wikipedia)

china -> china plate -> mate

This one needs little explanation, we had china plates coming in to the capital by the boat load, it rhymes nicely with mate, which is the most popular word for friend in most London areas. Though bruv gets used a lot these days in its place.

cobblers -> cobbler's awls -> balls

Balls being used in the slightly vulgar sense that bollocks is usually roped in for. To say that something is untrue, or rubbish in some respect, mainly refuting something said by another. The primary phrase I hear it used within is "What a load of old cobblers!"

mickey -> Mickey Bliss -> piss

Mickey Bliss was a bloke, supposedly from London, who no one knows anything about - he remains unidentified. Except in infamy for being the source of this rhyming slang couplet, quite a recent edition to the pantheon, 1930s I believe. Always used in the phrase "taking the mickey", although michael/mick can be substituted, from "taking the piss", which we recently had a discussion about. Note you can not use mickey for the act of urinating, the rhyming slang for that is jimmy (from Jimmy Riddle -> piddle).(Wikipedia)

scarper -> Scapa Flow -> go

The etymology on this one is a little unclear, it is known as rhyming slang from Scapa Flow (a very important natural harbour in the Orkney Islands) - but came additionally (and most likely originally) from the Italian immigrant population via their verb scappare which means to escape. The current meaning is to make a quick get away, we had a discussion on this word recently. It was used heavily amongst certain groups, notably it was taken up in the Polari language in the old phrase "scarper the letty", letty meaning bed/board/lodgings in Polari.

butchers -> butcher's hook -> look

We say, "take/have a butchers" to mean a quick look, synonymous with the word gander when used in that sense.

Hope that is of some interest to some of you, I do love etymology, particularly for obscure colloquialisms. :-)

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+1 for the excellent point that while the full rhyming slang isn’t terribly widely known/used, plenty of slang phrases derived from it are. –  PLL Feb 2 '11 at 5:14
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@PLL: Cheers. The point is, that you're not supposed to use the rhymes, that annoys me a lot when people do. Only the odd-ended word from the rhyming couplet; the rhyme lies unspoken and so, is forgotten. –  Orbling Feb 2 '11 at 9:05
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@Orbling: You are my hero! Thanks, and I owe you one (or more). I mean I owe you a buttered bun. I mean ... –  Robusto Feb 3 '11 at 1:18
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There are even new ones being coined. Listerine = anti-american. From, Listerine = an anti-sceptic. sceptic-tank = yank. yank = american. –  mgb Apr 2 '11 at 18:22
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@mgb: There are always newly coined rhyming slang, some falls under mockney, ie. imitation cockney slang, rather than genuine; some could be considered modern usage. [Slight spelling correction: septic, not sceptic - though I know many yanks who are anti-sceptic!] –  Orbling Apr 2 '11 at 20:50
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There's a Dick Francis novel called Driving Force in which inability of the (London-based) hero to understand local rhyming slang hinders him from solving the mystery. Presumably, Francis's mostly British readership found that plausible.

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As I remember, the rhyming slang involved wasn't standard, but was made up by the guy who used it (who was dead or missing—I can't remember which—so they couldn't ask him in person). –  Peter Shor Jan 18 '13 at 15:31
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I think many Britons do not understand rhyming slang; it was not part of my upbringing, though I was aware that rhyming slang existed. The trouble is, the rhyming slang seems to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean, without rhyme or reason that I can detect. Some terms are relatively well known - 'pork pies' for 'lies'. But most are obscure to the point of meaninglessness.

Rhyming slang was, by repute, beloved of Cockneys, who were people living in a specific area of London (towards the east and the docks, IIRC). And there probably was a common corpus of rhyming slang, but many of the books I've read make a point that the rhyming slang seemed to be made up by the speaker, leaving it to the imagination of the hearer to understand what the speaker meant. I believe it is a dying language form; I might be wrong about that, but the homogenization of language under the influence of first radio and later TV (and now films and the internet) makes it less and less likely to survive except as a deliberately obscure (and therefore affected but not effective) way of speaking.

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Rhyming slang isn't made up by the speaker. It wouldn't really work as language if it was. Obviously it has to be made up by someone at some point, but the successful coinages spread and become part of the language. Often the second part of the phrase will become obscure (not many people know that "on my tod = on my own" refers to American jockey Tod Sloan, for example).

Modern attempts to introduce new rhyming slang terms tend to use the whole phrase — for example "It's all gone Pete Tong" (a radio DJ) for "it's all gone wrong", but can't really be considered successful until the second word is dropped. You wouldn't hear anyone say "it's all gone Pete".

In fact there seem to be very few if any genuine new rhyming slang terms emerging, probably because TV and white flight from the East End have changed the culture of that part of London. The most recent derivations I've seen date back to the 1930s.

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This looks like a response to Jonathan Leffler's answer, rather than an answer to the question that was asked. –  Marthaª Jan 18 '13 at 17:27
    
@Martha: it's an answer to the last piece of the question, which nobody else answered: " Are the instances that appear in movies in common usage, and so understood right away, or are they often created on the spot." –  Peter Shor Jan 18 '13 at 20:56
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Most of what has been said previous is correct.

As stated by the previous geezers it depends on where abouts your from me old china. Most of the original of inhabitants of the East End (Bow Bells etc) have been forced to move out to Essex and to a lesser extent Kent (mainly Souf Lunduners moved down there innit).

However, you will still hear Cockney rhyming slang come out of the 'north and south' of Black Cab drivers (one of the last bastions for white Londeners to earn a crust).

As a Musher myself (thats an owner driver for you septic tanks - Yanks), I can speak an entire conversation in the smash and grab, on the hands free dog and bone with another cabbie and you wouldn't have the foggiest what I'm rabbitin on about.

I might say: whatcha Dave, hows the trouble? Be at mine at uncle Ben and will go for a ruby and a few pigs ears.

Translates: hello Dave, how's the wife (troubles and strife)? Be at mine at ten and we will go for a curry (Ruby Murray) and a few beers.

It's basically away of of having a natter or Frank and Pat (chat) to the exclusion of others, historically the Old Bill (police) or other authority figures. Though somtimes we use it to have a tin bath (laugh) at an outsiders expense. Innit.

Other words are used that are not necessarily rhyming slang, but metaphorical or allegorical in nature. For instance, if I was going for a hit and a miss (a piss/ to urinate) I might declare that I'm going to parliament - parliament being where all the Heads hang out (heads of government). Thus I'd be 'going to parliament' for a 'hit and a miss'. Going to the bog for a jimmy riddle etc. this kind of interchange between rhyming slang and metaphore basically leaves outsiders who speak the Queens (speaks English) dumbfounded, let alone Europeans etc.

In fact, I reckon Churchill would have ordered it to be used by resistance in WWII if the Gerrys had have landed and occupied.

Stand on me.

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+1 for letting me have a butcher's at this. –  Robusto Nov 14 '13 at 12:49
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As a cabbie, you should know that there is no such thing as a South Londoner. City stops at the river! ;-) –  Orbling Dec 2 '13 at 19:00
    
Orbling: only after dark. –  TimLymington Dec 28 '13 at 16:28
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