Cockney Accents and Rhyming Slang in Popular Culture

A British friend has given me some old episodes of a high-energy cop show “The Sweeney”, which was popular in the UK in the mid 1970s (Americans would recognize star John Thaw as the future Inspector Morse). The title of the series seems odd at first, until one realizes that it is Cockney Rhyming Slang. Some Americans equate “Cockney” with any working class English accent or with the eardrum-splintering voicing of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but the accent is particular to part of the East End of London (The bells of St. Mary-le-Bow definition understates the area where the accent is heard) and the rhyming aspect has a specific structure, which in addition to being linguistically fascinating is a great deal of fun. The rhyming word in a common pairing is deleted when an expression is made up to represent another word, so for Thaw’s police “Flying Squad”, the common pairing “Sweeney Todd” is the starting point. “Todd” and “Squad” rhyme, “Todd” is deleted from its common pairing and then “Sweeney” by itself becomes the slang for Flying Squad.

The only Cockney rhyming slang that I can think of which Americans use is “Raspberry”, meaning the sound a member of a crowd might make in response to a blown official’s call at a sporting event (aka “Bronx cheer”). It sounds like a particular biological function that rhymes with Raspberry Tart.

The most funny Cockney slang lesson in the movies is provided by Cary Grant in Mr. Lucky, in which he plays a con artist and robber who falls for the upscale Laraine Day and schools her in his native argot. The irony is that the debonair, posh-talking Grant would have talked much more like Mr. Lucky in his own economically unstable childhood as Archie Leach of Bristol.

For decades, British actors like Cary Grant were expected to suppress their working class accents. Michael Caine took the risk to keep his, and suffered the penalty of having all his lines removed from an early film by the editor and producer after it was shot. But he was too talented not to break through, Cockney accent and all, and as he explains here he had more than artistic reasons for doing so:

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Cockney Accents and Rhyming Slang in Popular Culture”

  1. Cockney, an endangered dialect and argot from its narrow location and constant demographic change, should be distinguished from Estuary, the working-class accent of greater London and its penumbra, especially Essex. John Major for instance speaks Estuary.

    The shibboleth test is, I’ve heard, the names of London’s two main airports:
    Gatwick – elided to “gawwick” in both.
    Heathrow – “eafro” only in Cockney.

  2. There’s a lot of fine Cockney rhyming slang in the fantastic movie The Limey. In particular, Terence Stamp has a soliloquy about 2/3 way through to a DEA agent, in which he thinks out loud about what has motivated him throughout his life, that culminates in the agent responding

    “There’s just one thing, I don’t understand.

    “The thing I don’t understand, is every motherf*cking thing you’re saying.”

    Shortly after the Exxon Valdez, I saw a greeting card whose humor was two steps removed from American, in which one bird with oil on its feet asks another “What `oil tanker’ did this?”

  3. The Beatles were also expected to drop their Liverpool accents — though John Lennon declines for the group here:

    Once accents came into public view, everything broke loose, including this great extended scene of Scots from Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” (David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) (includes some bits of blue language)

    I’ve always had it in the back of my head that John Lennon absent the Beatles is Johnny in “Naked.”

    Agree with Allen K. above about the Limey.

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