Rhyming slang is meant to be confusing!
English rhyming slang, like pretty much all forms of street dialect the world over, has a long and storied history with somewhat murky and debated origins. Various linguistic scholars and social historians have suggested that it perhaps originated (as many of these dialects do) among certain elements of the criminal fraternity, most likely as an attempt to cloud the waters for any eavesdropping lawmen.
In practice though, it quickly went on to achieve a much more widespread use and appeal, as we’ll see. The specific variety most associated with London, needless to say, is commonly referred to as cockney rhyming slang. However, it’s worth noting that rhyming slang’s popularity increased very rapidly during its Victorian heyday, and soon outgrew the specific areas of East London that would qualify it as strictly a ‘cockney’ phenomenon. Throughout the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, it was used fairly widely in working class communities all over the city, and even far beyond: today, of course, you could mention your ‘trouble and strife’ in conversation with a northern English speaker, or tell a Scot you were going up the ‘apples and pears’, and they’d barely bat an eyelid.
In many ways, this widespread understanding of rhyming slang these days could be considered a bit of a failure. Because, aside from those somewhat debatable criminal origins, one thing scholars have always agreed it did set out to do was serve as an identifying ‘badge’ for locals and those in the know. Again, like all street dialects – from the smoggy Victorian streets of Seven Dials, to the hillside favelas of Rio and the cobbled backstreets of post-war Palermo – one of its key purposes was always to confound and isolate outsiders. Fluency meant you were very much an insider, and thus more likely to be seen as trustworthy or sympathetic by your peers.
Ultimately, this is the very reason why these sorts of dialects are constantly evolving to this day, and why they’ll always continue to do so for as long as any occasional speakers of the dialect remain. Rhyming slang, as anyone who’s spent more than a few years in London will tell you, is particularly tricky to stay entirely ahead of the curve with: on any day of the week, you’re liable to encounter a baffling new phrase that takes a good few seconds to translate (if you manage it at all).
Everyone knows the old classics like the ‘dog and bone’ and the ‘butcher’s hook’, which is why, thanks to their occasional usage all around the UK, they now ultimately fail in the one purpose that they were originally coined to serve. They’ve entered the popular jargon; they immediately give us a feeling of nostalgia and tradition that’s sort of comforting. Conversely, much more modern examples of rhyming slang – perhaps ‘Britney Spears (tears) or ‘Wallace and Gromit’ (vomit) – certainly don’t have the same ring of cosy familiarity about them…and that’s exactly why they’re still being created and used today.
To give yourself a fighting chance of understanding some of the newer ones, check out this fairly extensive guide to common rhyming slang phrases both traditional and 21st century. (Just remember that, by the time you’ve read it, you’ll already be slightly out of date.) Moreover, if you do find yourself confused by it on a regular basis, you’re definitely not alone: in fact, a recent Museum of London survey found that a majority of lifelong Londoners don’t have a Scooby Doo what they’re hearing either. Happy rhyming!
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