Cockney Code: The Rough-and-Fast Rules of a Dialect

From “taking the mickey” to “making Barney Rubble,” the key to understanding dialects is to crack the code.

Some are more difficult to crack than others.

We’ve talked about how dialects formed across the UK, mostly due to its long history and isolation.

So, let’s take a look at how one might decode these complex dialects.

Cockney Rhyming Slang

One of the most commonly known English dialects, Cockney, is spoken by working-class Londoners, most often from the city’s East End – specifically within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside.

The dialect of Cockney is born of rhyming slang, a tradition believed to have originated in a criminal code used to fool the police or to keep customers out of the loop in the mid-19th century.

How does this rhyming slang work?

Random nouns are replaced with the odd words of common expressions. The expressions use words that rhyme with the original noun.

Some examples:

  • “Use your head” becomes “use your loaf” (“head” rhymes with “bread,” as in “loaf of bread”)
  • “I’m going upstairs” becomes “I’m going up the apples” (“stairs” rhymes with “pears,” as in “apples and pears”)
  • “Here’s your wife” becomes “Here’s your trouble” (“wife” rhymes with “strife,” as in “trouble and strife”)
  • “Give me some money” becomes “give me some bread” (“money” rhymes with “honey,” as in “bread and honey”)

Outliers in the Code

There is no end to the quirks of the Cockney dialect.

Some phrases don’t omit the rhyming word; instead, the entire phrase is used. For instance, in the case: 

  • “Would you believe it?” becomes “Would you Adam and Eve it?” (“believe” rhymes with “Eve”)

Other rhyming slang can also use obscure expressions, making the code even more difficult to crack. For instance, in the case:

  • “Having an egg” becomes “having a borrow and beg” (an expression that was renewed during WWII food rationing)

“New Cockney” even incorporates pop culture figures into the language, in the case:

  • “Christian Slater” standing in for “later” or “Sweeney Todd” is slang for a London police force unit known as “the Flying Squad.”

As you can see, unless you know the “code,” you’ll find yourself hard put to communicate in Cockney.

And British dialects in the English language split off even further.

Next week, we’ll look at how the dialect differentiates from Brummie and Geordie.