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Rhyming slang is a form of slang in spoken and written English in which a word is replaced by a rhyming word, typically the last word of a two- or three-word phrase with the effect that the meaning of the spoken or written words is not obvious to receivers who are not familiar with the code.[1] Examples that are frequently quoted include "frog and toad" meaning "road", and "apples and pears" meaning "stairs". The part of the coded phrase that rhymes with the original word is typically, but not always, omitted to further strengthen the code,[2] as in "I’m going up the apples" to mean "I’m going up the stairs".



The origin of rhyming slang is unclear, partly because it exists to some extent in many languages.[citation needed] In Britain, rhyming slang is nowadays associated with Cockney speech from the East End of London. According to Partridge (1972:12), it dates from around 1840 among the predominantly Cockney population of the East End of London who are well-known for having a characteristic accent and speech patterns[3] although John Camden Hotten in his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words states that (English) rhyming slang originated in the 1840s with 'chaunters' and 'patterers' (each a kind of travelling salesman; chaunters sold sheet music and patterers sold cheap tawdry goods at fairs and markets up and down the country) in the Seven Dials area of Westminster.[4][5]

It remains a matter of speculation whether rhyming slang was a linguistic accident, a game, or a cryptolect developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it may also have been used to maintain a sense of community. It is possible that it was used in the marketplace to allow vendors to talk amongst themselves in order to facilitate collusion, without customers knowing what they were saying. Another suggestion is that it may have been used by criminals (see thieves' cant) to confuse the police.

An introduction to rhyming slang is found in Up the frog: the road to Cockney rhyming slang, by Sydney Thomas Kendall.[6]


At any point in time, rhyming slang incorporates words and phrases that are relevant at that particular time and in that particular place. Many traditional examples are based on places in London and could be meaningless to people unfamiliar with the capital, e.g. "Peckham Rye", meaning "tie" (as in necktie), which dates from the late 19th century; "Hampstead Heath", meaning "teeth" (usually as "Hampsteads”), which was first recorded in 1887; and "Barnet Fair" meaning "hair", which dates from the 1850s.[1]

By the mid-20th century many rhyming slang expressions used the names of contemporary personalities, especially actors and performers: for example "Gregory Peck" (an actor) meaning "neck" and also "cheque"; "Ruby Murray" (an Irish singer) meaning "curry"; "Whickers", meaning "knickers" from Alan Whicker (a British television personality); "Chevy Chase" meaning "face" after an American film and television actor.

By the late 20th century the use of personal names as rhymes continued with such examples as "Tony Blairs" (usually as "Tonys") after the British prime minister to mean "flares" as in trousers with a wide bottom, previously this was "Lionel Blairs" (after a British dancer) identifying the mutative nature of the form; and "Britney Spears" (usually as "Britneys") meaning "beers" as in "Let’s get a round of Britneys".

The proliferation of rhyming slang over time has allowed many traditional expressions to pass into common usage. Some substitutions have become relatively widespread in Britain in their contracted form. "To have a butcher's", meaning to have a look, originates from "butcher's hook" (an S-shaped hook used by butchers to hang up meat), and dates from the late 1800s but has existed independently in general use from around the 1930s simply as "butchers". Similarly, "use your loaf", meaning "use your head", derives from "loaf of bread" and also dates from the late 1800s but came into independent use in 1930s.[1] It is likely that many people who use these terms today are unaware of their origin.

The reverse situation occurs with the term "barney", which has been used to mean an altercation or fight since the late 19th century although without a clear derivation.[7] In the 2001 feature film Ocean's Eleven a character uses the term "barney", which is claimed to be a rhyme derived from "Barney Rubble" meaning trouble. However, the use of "barney" in this context far precedes the Flintstones cartoon character Barney Rubble[8] and its usage in the movie in a way that is dependent on a 1960s cartoon to get to the meaning of "trouble" is a good example of the ever-changing nature of rhyming slang.

Regional variations

Traditional rhyming slang used in Britain is heavily influenced by its London origins and is frequently referred to as Cockney rhyming slang. Present day rhyming slang in Britain has a more general basis and is used and widely understood across the country. Some constructions, however, rely on particular regional accents for the rhymes to work. The term "Charing Cross" for example (a place in London) has been used to mean "horse" since the mid-19th century[1] but does not rhyme unless "cross" is pronounced to rhyme with "course" (/krɔːs/) as it is Cockney English and in other parts of Britain. A similar example is "Joanna" meaning "piano", which is based on the pronunciation of "piano" as "pianner" (/piˈænə/). Unique formations also exist in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as in the East Midlands, where the local accent has formed "Derby Road", which rhymes with "cold", a conjunction that would not be possible elsewhere in the UK.

Outside Britain, rhyming slang is used in many English-speaking countries. In Australian slang the term for an English person is "pommy", which has been proposed as a rhyme on "pomegranate" rhyming with "immigrant",[9][10].

In the United States the common slang expression "brass tacks" may be a rhyme for "facts",[citation needed]. The term "blow a raspberry", meaning to make a noise through the mouth with the tongue protruding, is also believed to be of American origin and probably comes from "raspberry tart" to rhyme with "fart".[citation needed]

Rhyming slang and taboo terms

Rhyming slang is often used as a substitute for words regarded as taboo, often to the extent that the association with the taboo word becomes unknown over time. "Berk" (often used to mean "foolish person") originates from "Berkeley Hunt" (or possibly "Berkshire Hunt") meaning "cunt"; "cobblers" (often used in the context "what you said is rubbish") originates from "cobbler's awls", meaning "balls" (as in testicles); and "hampton" meaning "prick" (as in penis) originates from "Hampton Wick" (a place in London).

Lesser taboo terms include "pony and trap" for "crap" (as in defecate but often used to denote nonsense); "horse and cart" for "fart"; "Jimmy Riddle" for "piddle" (as in urinate); and "J. Arthur Rank" (a film mogul) for "wank".

Rhyming slang in popular culture

In Britain rhyming slang had a resurgence of popular interest in the 1970s resulting from its use in a number of London-based television programmes such as Mind Your Language, The Sweeney (the title of which is itself rhyming slang – "Sweeney Todd" for "Flying Squad", a rapid response unit of London’s Metropolitan Police), Minder,[11] Only Fools and Horses, EastEnders.

In modern literature, Cockney rhyming slang is used frequently in the novels and short stories of Kim Newman, for instance in the short story collections "The Man from the Diogenes Club" (2006) and "Secret Files of the Diogenes Club" (2007), where it is explained at the end of each book.[12]

In popular music, London-based artists such as Audio Bullys and Chas & Dave (and others from elsewhere in the UK such as The Streets who are from Birmingham) frequently use rhyming slang in their songs. The UK punk scene of the late 1970s introduced bands that glorified their working-class heritage: Sham 69 had a hit song "The Cockney Kids are Innocent". The idiom made a brief appearance in the UK-based DJ reggae music of the 1980s in the hit "Cockney Translation" by Smiley Culture of South London; this was followed a couple of years later by Domenick and Peter Metro's "Cockney and Yardie".

In movies, Cary Grant's character teaches rhyming slang to his female companion in the film Mr. Lucky (1943) and describes it as Australian rhyming slang. In present day feature films rhyming slang is often used to lend authenticity to an East End setting. Examples include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998); The Limey (1999); Sexy Beast (2000); Snatch (2000); Ocean's Eleven (2001).


  1. ^ a b c d Ayto, John (2002). The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280122-8. 
  2. ^ Roberts, Chri s (2006). Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme. Thorndike Press. ISBN 0-7862-8517-6. 
  3. ^ Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of Historical Slang. Penguin, 1972.
  4. ^ Hotten, John Camden. "Some account of the Rhyming Slang, the secret language of Chaunters and Patterers". A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words. pp. 133—136.,+Cant+and+Vulgar+Words&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  5. ^ Sullivan, Dick. ""Weeping Willow" stands for "Pillow": Victorian Rhyming Slang". Retrieved 16 January 2010. 
  6. ^ ISBN 978-0723401384
  7. ^ Partridge,Eric, A concise dictionary of slang and unconventional English. Routledge, 1991:22. (ISBN 0-415-06352-3)
  8. ^ Re: Having a barney
  9. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary cites a well-known Australian weekly, The Bulletin, which on 14 November 1912 reported: "The other day a Pummy Grant (assisted immigrant) was handed a bridle and told to catch a horse." Online Oxford English Dictionary entry for "Pomegranate".
  10. ^ Partridge,Eric, A concise dictionary of slang and unconventional English. Routledge,1991:342. (ISBN 0-415-06352-3)
  11. ^ Hawkins, Brian, The Phenomenon that was Minder. Chameleon Press, 2002. (ISBN 962-86812-1-4)
  12. ^ Shambles in Belgravia

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