By Jonathon Green

Cockney’s not a language it is only a slang
And was originated inna England

The first place it was used was over East London…

            Smiley Culture, ‘Cockney Translation’ (1984)

The British rapper Smiley Culture, whose lyrics compared the differing if synonymous languages of black and white East Enders—and which today have been conflated in the new lexis known as Multi-Ethnic London English—was only partially correct. Cockney may not be a fully-fledged language, although it certainly boasts a proportion of the ‘rules’ of grammar and spelling (albeit phonetically) that underpin such linguistic formations, but for all that it is so heavily identified with slang, and especially that tourist delight, Cockney rhyming slang, it is if anything a dialect. London’s own.

What is Cockney?

The word cockney has resolutely resisted any simple etymology. It is first noted in 1362, when it meant a ‘cock’s egg’—that is, a defective one. However there was an alternative use, first recorded in Chaucer and defined in the second edition of the OED (1989) as ‘a mother’s darling’; a cockered child, pet, minion; ‘a child tenderly brought up’; hence, a squeamish or effeminate fellow, ‘a milksop’. Hence the equation, presumably coined by self-aggrandizing countrymen, of the weakling with the townsman, a use initially recorded in 1521. And from the general to the specific: in 1600 appeared the first such usage, in which the reference is not merely to the working-class Londoner, with which it would henceforth be allied, but to a Bow-bell Cockney.

What is a Cockney? One who has been born within the sound of Bow bells, a reference not, as often believed, to the eastern suburb of Bow, but to the church of Saint Mary le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. Further to a study carried out in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, it was estimated that they would have been audible six miles to the east, five to the north, three to the south, and four to the west, an area that covers Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Bow, and Mile End, as well as Bermondsey, south of the River Thames. Given the post-war emigration of many Cockneys to Essex, that area can now be seen as substantially larger. Nor were the original Cockneys invariably working class. All sorts of individuals would once have spoken the London dialect, even if the great push for linguistic ‘purity’ during the seventeenth and eighteenth century prohibited such ‘vulgarisms’ from the aspirant middle class.

The OED‘s first recorded use of Cockney language is dated 1776. But it has been suggested that a Cockney style of speech is much older, with Matthews offering examples from the sixteenth century onwards (William Matthews, Cockney Past and Present, 1938). Shakespeare is among those he quotes, although his Cockneyisms are far from East Enders. Indeed, early Cockney is primarily a matter of pronunciation, as reverse-engineered from the recorded spelling of words such as frust (thrust), farding (farthing), anoder (another), and so on.

The nineteenth century saw the first wholesale attempt to record Cockney as it was spoken. The low-life episodes of Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) take his heroes deep into the East End and its speech. London’s great chronicler Charles Dickens, notably with Sam Weller and his father, is unsurprisingly keen on setting down the sound of Cockney speech, most obviously in the substitution of ‘v’ for ‘w’ and vice versa. The pioneering sociologist Henry Mayhew recorded his impoverished or criminal interviewees in much the same style. Dickens at least offers an implied moral judgement on those who drop their aitches and reverse their v’s and w’s: irrespective of their background ‘virtuous’ characters, such as Oliver Twist and Nancy, never stray from standard English. It is left to Sykes and the Dodger to display the author’s underworld knowledge. Yet ‘Dickensian’ Cockney was short-lived. By the century’s end a new school of Cockney novelists—notably William Pett Ridge, Edwin Pugh, and Arthur Morrison—had emerged. It is ‘their’ Cockneyisms that are far more like what one hears today. At much the same time London’s music hall was dominated by stars such as Albert Chevalier, Gus Elen, Marie Lloyd or Bessie Bellwood, all of whom promoted themselves as embodying the lives of the Cockneys who made up their audiences. Moreover they did so with songs imbued with that audience’s home-grown language.

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Rhyming slang

If there is a stereotype of what the world sees as ‘typically Cockney’ then it is undoubtedly rhyming slang. While the creation myths of that lexis differ, it was certainly popular among the early nineteenth-century Cockney costermongers.

The original rhyming slang, which was a conscious attempt to mystify the uninitiated, depended on the omission of the rhyming element, for example: ‘Barnet fair’ / ‘hair’ (1857) to barnet (1931); ‘china plate’ / ‘mate’ (1880) to china (1925); ‘Hampstead Heath’ / ‘teeth’ (1887) to Hampsteads (1932); and ‘Sweeney Todd’ / ‘flying squad’ (1938) to Sweeney (1967). However this was by no means a rule, and there exist a number of terms in which the entire compound is pronounced — hence Adam-and-Eve / ‘believe’ (1925), cocoa / ‘say so’ (1936), or tea-leaf / ‘thief’ (1903). Rhyming slang persists today, though how ‘Cockney’ such artificial constructs as ‘Posh and Becks: sex’ or ‘Germaine Greer: beer’ may be is at best debatable. Like Routemaster buses and black cabs, it is an essential part of London’s tourist-orientated image.

Cockney survives, but not without change. If one can elicit a single pattern then it is the movement beyond purely working-class speech. Mockney (1989) has been adopted by a growing spectrum of the otherwise middle-class and reasonably well-heeled young, As an accent it resembles the more formal concept of Estuary English which was first recorded in 1984 and defined by the OED as ‘a type of accent identified as spreading outwards from London, mainly into the south-east of England, and containing features of both received pronunciation and such regional accents as Cockney’. And since then, at least among the under-thirties, both working- and middle-class, there is Multi-Ethnic London English, a dialect that reflects the city’s multicultural makeup, and blends terms from mainstream slang, the Caribbean and American rap, and of course London’s own Cockney.

Further reading on Cockney

  • Julian Franklyn, The Cockney: a Survey of London Life and Language (1953)
  • Jonathon Green, Cassell Book of Rhyming Slang (2000)
  • William Matthews, Cockney Past and Present. A Short History of the Dialect of London (1938)
  • Peter Wright, Cockney Dialect and Slang (1981)