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. Today, the term 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. 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 known as Cockney slang originated. It’s something that’s endured and is commonly used for sneaky (or obvious) insults.
Cockney slang insults are fun and unique phrases, but they won't make sense if you don't have a basic understanding of how they're formed. Cockney sayings are crafted so that they rhyme in some way with the "real" word they're meant to replace. There is no other relationship between a Cockney term and the word it replaces.
- Barney Rubble - trouble. "Here comes Barney Rubble,” a Cockney might say. You could take this in one of two ways, so, hopefully, your Cockney mates think you’re the good kind of trouble. Otherwise, they might be tossing an insult your way.
- Berkeley hunt - idiot/c*nt. The full phrase Berkeley (or Berkshire) hunt has been shortened to "berk," which has become a milder slang word of its own. Berk means idiot, as in "you're being a berk."
- bottle and glass - arse. If someone says "bottle and glass" in your vicinity, they're not asking how you'd like to be served a drink. It isn't a perfect rhyme, but it works well enough.
- cobblers awls - balls. While "bollocks" is a common British slang term for balls (in the context of testicles), Cockney slang uses the phrase cobblers awls to exclaim the same sentiment of "nonsense!" This is sometimes shortened to just "cobblers" and the nonsense can even be as big as "a load of cobblers."
- cows and kisses - missus. Alas, cows and kisses refers to the wife. Since not too many wives enjoy being likened to a cow, this stereotypical Cockney phrase is definitely a bit of a slur. Those Cockney boys sure know how to express their love.
- dental flosser - tosser. Cockney slang offers a variety of ways to insult someone, so, if a Cockney calls you a dental flosser, they're not complimenting your smile. They're saying that you're a jerk.
- elephant’s trunk - drunk. For as long as the catchphrase “drunk as a skunk” is around, the Cockneys will have one better. Someone you can't rely on because of their love of the drink just might be referred to as a no-good elephant's trunk.
- Hampton Wick - d*ck. Rather than using the more general slang terms pr*ck or d*ck, a Cockney might describe someone who's being annoying as a Hampton Wick. In modern usage, you'll often hear the shortened form in the phrase "he's really getting on my wick" meaning someone's being very annoying.
- King Dick - thick. If a Cockney calls you King Dick, it's not a compliment. They're not referring to you as royalty. Instead, they're making it known that they think you're more than just a bit stupid.
- merchant banker - w*nker. If someone is being a general pain or a jerk, a Cockney is more likely to refer to the person as a merchant banker rather than a w*nker.
- mockney - fake Cockney. 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.
- north and south - mouth. If someone tells you to stop going north and south, they're not referring to the direction you're traveling. Instead, chances are they're telling you to shut your mouth.
- pen and ink - stink. If a Cockney mentions pen and ink, they're not asking to borrow a writing instrument. It's a comment about a foul smell, which just might be coming from you (especially if it immediately follows a raspberry tart).
- pony and trap - crap. If a Cockney figures out that you're telling pork pies (lies) rather than the truth, they just might call you on your pony and trap. That means they know what you're saying is a bunch of crap.
- radio rental - mental. If a Cockney tries to talk to you and you don’t answer, they might say you’re a bit radio rental. That's their way of saying that they think you've got a few screws loose.
- raspberry tart - fart. It wouldn’t be nice to liken someone to a raspberry tart. Although this baked good is delicious, a Cockney isn't saying you're a yummy treat - quite the opposite!
- septic tank - yank/yankee. Oh, dear, it seems the Cockneys don't hold Americans in high esteem. This term is often shortened to just septic, and if you don’t like yanks, then you’re "Listerine," because you're anti-septic! Get it? What a fun play on words!
- skin and blister - sister. You might sense a theme here of Cockney insults not being especially kind to women. If your wife is cows and kisses, and your sister is a skin and blister (often shortened to blister), where does this leave the women in a Cockney’s life? Ladies, maybe it's time to turn the tide. After all, blister also rhymes with mister!
- sweaty sock - jock/Scot. Sure enough, a true Cockney isn’t biased in his insults. His sister may be a blister, but he wouldn’t want her dating a sweaty sock, i.e. a Scot! In this case, sweaty sock actually rhymes with jock, which is itself a British slang word for a Scottish person. Don't worry, the Scots have their own slang for retorts.
- tea leaf - thief. 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. Instead, they’re calling you a thief!
This manner of speaking is not limited to put-downs and snarky remarks. Of course, not every Cockney inflicts insult and injury on the average passerby, there’s also rhyming British street slang for all parts of everyday life. And, of course, these expressions can certainly be used in an insulting way or combined with a stereotypical insult.
- almond rocks - socks. On a cold winter morning, you can be sure a street vendor was wearing his warmest pair of almond rocks! For an insulting twist, someone could tell you that your almond rocks remind them of raspberry tarts.
- baked bean - queen. Even monarchs aren't immune to Cockney slang! What manner of creative rhyme has been devised to refer to Her Majesty the queen? None other than the unceremonious moniker of baked bean. If you know someone who's putting on airs, you might feel the need to remind her that she's no baked bean.
- battlecruiser - boozer. At the pub, late on a Friday night, you might spot a battlecruiser or two. That is, a heavy boozer! There are a lot of slang words for getting drunk, though this is one of the more creative options. The office battlecruiser is the one who can't hold his or her liquor without acting a fool.
- bees and honey - money. 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 means they're talking about their money. Such chatter could turn into insults quite easily, especially if one friend always expects the other to cough up the bees when it's time to settle the tab.
- brass tacks - facts. Here’s a fun one. This bit of Cockney made it across the pond; many Americans talk about getting down to brass tacks. Did you ever wonder what that meant? It’s time to get down to the cold, hard facts (a near rhyme, but close enough). If you're known for wasting time, people might say that you don't have the gumption to get down to brass tacks.
- bubble bath - laugh. Back to those pals at the pub, discussing their bees and honey. Somewhere along the line, you can be sure they partook in a bubble bath. No, they didn't jump in the tub. Instead, they had a big ol’ belly laugh. How do you respond to an insult that's also funny? With a bubble, of course. It can also be used to express disbelief in the same way as "are you joking?" - "are you 'avin' a bubble?"
- dicky dirt - shirt. Come Saturday morning, we hope all those street vendors found a clean dicky dirt to wear to work. This is especially true if your dicky dirt has seen better days and now has the odor of a raspberry tart.
- Duke of Kent - rent. You might think this refers to royalty, but alas it does not. 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. When insulting how skint (British slang for broke) someone is, one might point out that the individual can't come up with their Duke of Kent.
- Mutt and Jeff - deaf. Perhaps you simply didn’t hear the person talking to you. No matter; they spoke and you did not respond, so they might decide that if you're not Mutt and Jeff you're just being rude.
- Tom and Dick - sick. Let’s hope that no one awakes feeling Tom and Dick the next morning. It seems like the Cockneys are a bunch who like to work hard, play hard. After getting elephant's trunk, it's not too uncommon to feel Tom and Dick. You might say that someone makes you Tom and Dick if their behavior is offensive to you.
When you hear people using British street slang like this, especially insults, you might find yourself in need of a Cockney translator. In order to figure out what Cockney sayings mean, it's important to consider how this type of slang is created in the first place. Using the steps below, you can even generate your own terms that follow the tradition of British street slang.
- First, you find a word you want to emulate using Cockney slang. For example, maybe you want to talk about someone’s wife. 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” are not just rhymes, but also synonyms. 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,” Cockney insults have never really been about that. It’s more about the cleverness and the fun. This technique just might be linked in some ways to popular literary devices.
- Often Cockney phrases are shortened so they lose the rhyming connection with their meaning. So don't be confused if you get into Barney for having a bubble when your friend's blister blows a raspberry.
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 workday fly by. These guys were pushing their creativity to the limit while earning money to pay their Duke of Kent and indulging in a pint or two. If that didn’t make for a happy memory, what could? It’s good to see that the creativity of Cockney slang lives on. Some Cockney terms have even made it into everyday language, as with writers who love to get down to brass tacks when gearing up for the next essay or report. Now that you've explored this subset of UK slang, broaden your horizons by learning even more British slang.