Have you ever fallen under the spell of a cockney? The term was originally reserved for Londoners who were born within earshot of the ringing bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, a historic church in East London. The bells of St. Mary-le-Bow were destroyed by German bombs during World War II, so you could say a true cockney hasn’t been born since 1945. Today, “cockney” is a tip of the hat to good ‘ol fashioned, hard-working Eastenders.
Cockney insults display a level of shrewdness that’s difficult to rival. Let’s start with a brief history. Cockney rhyming slang may have been around since the 16th century, but it really came to life in the 1840s, among market traders and street hawkers. You could compare it to a secret language. Cockney slang was meant to disguise the traders’ conversation from regular passersby. Brilliant, right? Imagine how many unassuming customers were taunted!
Today, you won’t interact with too many costermongers (those selling fruit and vegetables from handcarts) as you stroll through the streets of East London, but, this is where the clever way with words originated and it’s something that’s endured.
Cockney phrases are fun and unique because they rhyme. Here’s how they did it. First, you find a word you want to emulate. Let’s say you want to talk about someone’s wife with your fellow costermongers. The phrase “trouble and strife” rhymes with “wife.” So, a cockney might say something like: “Watch out, Fred’s trouble and strife is stomping down the street.”
Some would argue that “wife” and “trouble and strife” aren’t just rhymes, but synonyms, and therein lies the brilliance of it all. It’s the intelligence of the rhymes (and the veiled slurs) that make cockney insults unique. While there’s an edge of “mean”, it’s never really been about that. It’s more about the cleverness and the fun. Could we even go so far as to liken it to some of our favorite literary devices? Let’s see a few more examples:
Barney Rubble - “Here comes Barney Rubble.” You could take this in one of two ways. Barney Rubble means trouble. So, hopefully, your cockney mates think you’re the good kind of trouble. Otherwise, they might be tossing an insult your way.
Cows and Kisses - Alas, cows and kisses refers to the missus and how many wives enjoy being likened to a cow? Those cockney boys sure know how to express their love, don’t they?
Skin and Blister - You might sense a theme here. Because, if your wife is trouble and strife, and your sister is a skin and blister (often shortened to blister), where does this leave the women in a cockney’s life?
Jock - Sure enough, a true cockney isn’t biased in his insults. His sister may be is a blister, but he wouldn’t want her dating a Jock, i.e. a Scot!
Mockney - Nobody likes an imposter, right? There’s no such thing as an honorary cockney, no matter how good your accent. You’ve either got it or you don’t. And, if you don’t, the best you’ll ever be is a mockney.
Radio Rental - If a cockney tries to talk to you and you don’t answer, they might say you’re a bit radio rental, i.e. mental. Who’s to say whose got a few screws loose, huh?
Mutt and Jeff - Perhaps, you simply didn’t hear the cockney talking to you. This might lessen the insult from radio rental to Mutt and Jeff, or just plain deaf!
Raspberry Tart - It wouldn’t be nice to liken someone to a raspberry tart. Although this baked good is delicious, in cockney slang, you’re comparing your pal to a fart!
Septic Tank - Oh, dear. It seems the cockneys hold the Americans in about the same esteem as Scotsmen. A yank would be known as a septic tank. (And if you don’t like yanks, then you’re listerine, i.e. anti-septic! This one’s not rhyming, but a fun play on words.)
Tea Leaf - You’d never want to be trapped in an alleyway with a bunch of cockneys calling you a tea leaf. They’re not asking you to afternoon tea with the Baked Bean, a.k.a. the Queen. They’re calling you a thief!
Of course, not every cockney inflicts insult and injury on the average passerby, there’s rhyming slang for all parts of everyday life. Let’s have a look:
Apples and Pears - If you want to get some exercise, take the apples and pears, i.e. the stairs. Imagine an old street vendor complaining as he bounces his cart up the apples and pears.
Almond Rocks - Perhaps it was a cold winter morning when that street vendor had to bounce his cart up the apples and pears. You can be sure he was wearing his warmest pair of almond rocks, otherwise known as socks!
Battlecruiser - At the pub, late on a Friday night, you might spot a battlecruiser or two. That is, a heavy boozer or two!
Bees and Honey - At the end of a hard day, as a couple of friends enjoy each other’s company over a pint of beer, they might discuss their bees and honey, that’s their money.
Brass Tacks - Here’s a fun one. Even in America, we like to get down to brass tacks. Did you ever wonder what that meant? It means it’s time to get down to the cold, hard facts.
Bubble Bath - Back to our pals at the pub, discussing their bees and honey. Somewhere along the line, you can be sure they partook in a bubble bath, i.e. a big ol’ belly laugh.
Dicky Dirt - Come Saturday morning, we hope all those street vendors found a clean dicky dirt, a.k.a. shirt, after their evening festivities!
Duke of Kent - All their hustling on the London streets will be worth it when they’ve got the bees and honey to pay the Duke of Kent on time, a.k.a. their rent.
Elephant’s Trunk - For as long as the catchphrase “drunk as a skunk” is around, the cockneys will have one better. Perhaps they all got elephant’s trunk, a.k.a. drunk, on a Friday night, alongside their friendly neighborhood battlecruisers.
Tom and Dick - Let’s hope that no one awakes feeling Tom and Dick the next morning, a.k.a. sick. It seems like the cockneys were a bunch who liked to work hard, play hard.
Can you imagine showing up to work every day with a bunch of friends who’ve developed their own language of trickery? The bubble baths are sure to make the work day fly by. These guys were pushing their creativity to the limit while earning their Duke of Kent money and indulging in a pint or two. If that didn’t make for a happy memory, what could?
It’s good to see that this creativity lives on, as cockney slang is still thriving with 20th century additions, like Radio Rental, Barney Rubble and mockney. Some has even made it into everyday language, as writers love to get down to brass tacks when gearing up for the next essay or report. We can thank the cockneys for that!