Many of us know that “brown bread” is Cockney rhyming slang for dead, “china plate” for mate, and “bubble bath” for laugh. But how many know the meaning of the phrases? The historic native wit of this east end community (and its followers from around the world) often has an interesting logic to its phrases. Rather than simply a rhyming association, the slang reflects meaning in the expressions themselves. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used Cockney rhyming slang:
“Apples and pears” (stairs)
To the Cockney, the phrase “steps and stairs” describes the idea of gradation. Every good costermonger has skill in displaying the front of his stall. The selected samples of fruit and vegetables are expertly graded in “steps and stairs”. Apples and pears, when in season, are common on each barrow and, when polished, create an arresting display.
“Army and navy” (gravy)
As gravy was plentiful at mealtimes in both services.
“Basin of gravy” (baby)
Suggestive of the softness of the foods on which babies are fed.
“Bees and honey” (money)
As bees are the epitome of work, work produces money, the possession of which is sweet.
“Borrow and beg” (egg)
A term that enjoyed a fresh lease of life during the second world war and the food-rationing period.
“Bottle and stopper” (copper)
Policeman. There are a possible pair of inferences: to bottle meaning to enclose and a stopper meaning one who holds another back from a course of action.
“Box of toys” (noise)
As a box of toys, particularly a new one given as a present at Christmas time, causes a great deal of noise to be made.
“Can’t keep still” (treadmill)
Since people sentenced to that 19th century punishment could not keep still for a second.
“Clever mike” (bike)
Influenced by the extreme displays that adolescents are inclined to perform on a bicycle, especially when showing off.
“Coals and coke” (broke)
Since both coal and coke used to be supplied in large blocks that had to be broken down before their use.
“Coat and badge” (cadge)
Sometimes known as “Doggett’s” as watermen who possessed the Doggett Coat and Badge could charge higher fares than those without.
“Collar and cuff” (puff)
An effeminate man, suggestive either by their neatness of dress, or by “powder puff”.
“Cop a flower pot” (cop it hot)
To get into serious trouble. Suggested by the effect of a flower pot dropped from a window above on to someone below.
“Crowded space” (suitcase)
Which was often stolen during packed railway stations in the holiday season.
“Cut and carried” (married)
Applying only to the wife who is cut off from the parental support and carried (provided for) by her husband.
“Cuts and scratches” (matches)
Many imported safety matches were of poor quality and often failed to ignite when scratched against the side of the box.
“Day’s a-dawning” (morning)
A term often used by people working at nighttime.
“Derry and Toms” (bombs)
Referring not just to the famous London store, but to “derry” as to “have a derry on” meaning to dislike, referring to “down on”, meaning prejudiced against, from Derry Down in Ireland.
“Didn’t ought” (port)
The drink. Based on the imploring of ladies who, when asked to “have another”, replied that they “didn’t ought”.
“Do me good/s” (wood/s)
Short for the cigarette Woodbines which indirectly played their part in the victory of the first world war.
“Duck and dive” (hide)
A duck when diving is hidden beneath the pond’s surface and to duck is to avoid a blow by a quick dropping movement.
“Dustbin lid/s” – (kid/s)
Used when children have created a huge amount of mess.
“Early hours” (flowers)
As flower buyers have to keep very early hours to buy their produce at Covent Garden flower market.
“Fisherman’s daughter” (water)
As water is part of the fisherman’s landscape.
“Gay and hearty” (a party)
Describing how a social get-together should be.
“Give and take” (cake)
As no cake can be eaten that has not been given (by a shopkeeper) and taken. Cake also means money, as in “a cake of notes” that also needs to be given and taken.
“Helter-skelter” (an air-raid shelter)
Referring to the speed required to run to such a refuge and the fact they were often underground.
“In and out” (snout)
As in the nose through which people both inhale and exhale.
“Light and dark’ (park)
Referring to the London County Council’s notice to the effect that a bell was rung and the gates locked at dusk.
“Lion’s lair” (chair)
Referring to the risk caused in disturbing the father of the household when he was taking his afternoon nap in an armchair “of a Sunday”.
“Loop the loop” (soup)
Referring to a late 19th century act of daring where a performer strapped to a wheel whizzed round on a coiled track.
“Lump of ice” (advice)
Which to receive sometimes can be very cold comfort.
“Lump of lead” (the head)
In reference to the morning after the night before.
“Lump of school” (fool)
The market stall holders felt that the sooner the boy stopped reading books and gained practical experience the better.
In the sterling sense. Referring to the saying that “money was made round to go round”.
“Mozzle and brocha” (on the knocker)
Yiddish words for good luck and good health respectively, referring to the occupation ofdoor-to-door salesman (these are two of his six requirements, the other four being: good looks, temper, voice and manners).
“Near and far” (bar)
As in the idea of “so near and yet so far” relating to a busy pub with a throng of waiting customers.
“Oily rag” (a fag)
Meaning a cigarette and referring to its soiled state when smokers are employed in a mucky profession.
“On the floor” (poor)
Used of temporarily penniless housewives.
“Once a week” (beak)
A magistrate. In heady days many did see the “beak” once a week as a result of excessive partying on a Saturday night.
“Penny-come-quick” (a trick)
A trick of confidence which if successful made for easy money.
“Pig and roast” (toast)
A cynical reference to the bog standard level of menu of the average mess for the “other ranks”.
“Pimple and blotch” (Scotch)
For which a long indulgence can have a considerable effect upon the skin.
“Pleasure and pain” (rain)
Both a matter of pleasure for gardeners and pain for sufferers from rheumatism.
“Rank and riches” (breeches)
Riding breeches which were worn in the 19th century by those with either wealth or a title.
“Rats and mice” (dice)
The appearance of dice rolling is similar to rodents running.
“Rattle and clank” (bank)
Suggestive of the busy handling of coins.
“Scotch mist” (pissed)
The connection is very apt.
“Stand to attention” (pension)
As in that due to a long-serving, retired soldier.
“Satin and silk” (milk)
Suggestive of its smoothness.
“Short of a sheet” (in the street)
Implying a situation of penury and hence the lack of a bed.
“Sugar basin” (a marble mason)
The appearance of rough white marble resembles a sugar lump and being a soft stone (when newly quarried) it is easy (ie sweet) to work with.
“Tick tack” (the track)
A horse racing term relating to the “tic tac” signals made by bookmakers.
“True till death” (breath)
The connection is very apt.
“Tumble down the sink” (drink)
The connection is very apt.
“Weep and wail” (a tale)
Used exclusively in reference to a beggar’s tale.
“Yet to be” (free)
In the sense both of without cost, implying a part of the good time coming, and without restraint, as in the release from prison.