Apples and pears

“Apples and pears = stairs.”  That was the first time I’d heard about Cockney rhyming slang years ago in Portsmouth, England, while getting a tour from my now dearly departed friend, Alex. I needed to know more and the next time I saw him and his wife Angela, they gifted me a small Cockney rhyming slang guide which I treasure greatly. I immediately loved the idea of this sort of secret language spoken in plain English.

Cockney rhyming slang is a type of code language first used by cockneys in the East End of London in the 1800s, and in which words are substituted by other words or phrases that rhyme with it. Traditionally, the term cockney is a person born within earshot of Bow Bells, a reference to the church of Saint Mary le Bow in Cheapside, London.

It is said that with more police beginning to patrol the streets of London in the mid-1800s, East Enders found a way of communicating with each other without the “bobbies” knowing what they were up to, keeping their business to themselves. Also, dockworkers, fish mongers and market workers used this way of speaking to communicate privileged information to each other without customers knowing what they were discussing. Thus, Cockney Rhyming Slang was born from a need to keep things from the ears of eavesdroppers, punters, and police, since the idea was to exclude and mislead those who were not Cockneys and in the know.

So how does this secret language work? To put it simply, a word (stairs) is replaced by a rhyming phrase of two or three words (apples and pears), the last word in the phrase rhyming with the original word (stairs). You can then omit the last part of the rhyming phrase (and pears), and thus “I’m going up the apples” means “I’m going up the stairs.”

Below are some of my favourite phrases:  

Bread and honey = money

Trouble and strife = wife

Mince pies = eyes

Septic tank = Yank (an American)

Ruby Murray = curry

Dog and bone = telephone

Loaf of bread = head

Cockney rhyming slang continues to grow, with new phrases being created for these modern times. Celebrity names are often turned into rhyming slang phrases (Britney Spears = beers) and it has kept up with the 21st century (sportsman’s bet = internet). Even though it began in the East End of London as a way of keeping information from outsiders and police, it became widely known throughout the rest of London and beyond.

You are not Jack Jones if you Adam and Eve that Cockney rhyming slang is complicated. But if you use your loaf, you’ll have fun getting the hang of using these phrases!

Cristina Vargas

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