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Do you know how to use your loaf? Can you tell when someone's taking the mick? If so, you still might find it tricky to chew the fat with a genuine Cockney. Aleksandar Savić investigates a particularly poetic form of slang, and its influence on British English.

Pearlykingandqueen_full
Photo: PD
"Pearly kings and queens" are a tradition of Cockney London: Costermongers used to sew pearl buttons onto their clothes, and the costume was later adopted by charitable organisations.

Lately I've been wondering why it is that people tend to prefer other types of literature to poetry these days. Maybe it's just that they don't understand the damn thing: irregular word order, terms either archaic or newly-introduced especially for the occasion - and all for the sake of the physiology of the verse, or in some cases, rhyme. Now, if it is that difficult to comprehend a single thought expressed this way, what to say of a whole language system based on rhyming? Whatever the definition of "poetic" may have been in London's East End in the first half of the nineteenth century, a peculiar type of slang originated there around 1840, and is widely known as Cockney, referring to the working-class Londoners from this area.

The basis of Cockney rhyming slang is the substitution of the key word of the sentence with a single or several words which rhyme with the original one. For example, one of the oldest and most well-known phrases is "apples and pears," which is a slang substitute for "stairs". So, "going down the stairs" would be "going down the apples and pears." But, since it is not in the nature of any spoken language to get more complicated than it is already, this phrase is often reduced to the first word, which usually doesn't rhyme with the word being replaced. And that is where things get complicated, since the situation demands not only a sense of logic but a profound knowledge of the traditions, popular culture and other factors which shape the social context of the area where the slang originates and thrives. Although "going down the apples" only has a few reasonable solutions, a "tea," derived from "tea leaf", meaning "thief", is not so easy to decipher, let alone "merchant navy," the Cockney phrase for "gravy".

Although Cockney first appeared about a hundred and fifty years ago, it hasn't lost its place in modern colloquial English. Should a fine gentleman happen to tell you that his "trouble went to get her barnet done" what he is implying is that his good lady wife went to her hairdresser (trouble – trouble and strife = wife; barnet – barnet fair = hair). So don't worry if you don't understand at first - it's just a bit of culture shock; there's nothing wrong with your "loaf" (loaf of bread = head)! Actually, it's only a matter of time and practice before you start "chewing the fat" (having a chat) this way, if you're in the right place and speaking to the right people.

If you told a nineteenth century Londoner to send you a "Malcolm" (Malcolm X = text/SMS), first of all, he wouldn't know who or what Malcolm X was, let alone what in the world an SMS could be.

A more contemporary version of the Cockney tradition is the so-called "Mockney." Developing among England's Home Countries middle class, it tends to imitate Cockney, mostly regarding pronunciation, in order to highlight the speaker's – actual or fictional – low background and knowledge of the ways of the streets. Also, both the things Mockney phrases explain, and the terms they use to do so, are in a way anachronistic compared to "classical" Cockney. If you happened to tell a nineteenth century Londoner to send you a "Malcolm" (Malcolm X = text/SMS), first of all, he wouldn't know who or what Malcolm X was, let alone what in the world an SMS could be. But he surely would tell you to keep you bloody "Mary" (Mary Rose = nose) out of his business if you planned to keep it between your ears.

We can say with certainty that Cockney developed as a way of expressing oneself in everyday situations, but besides that there are theories regarding its alternative purposes. One of them suggests that it was a means of concealing a potential crime, or if the mischief had already been done, to avoid the notice of the authorities. In theory, this actually could have worked if the thesaurus of the slang had been regularly updated. And that isn't at all improbable, since the number of Cockney phrases increases daily, responding to new trends and fashions. Let's just imagine a dialogue between two modern villains, plotting a diabolical master plan, as heinous as their dark souls themselves - see if you can sort the Cockney from the Mockney...

Villain A: So, whatcha doin' tonight, me ol' plate (dinner plate = mate)?

Villain B: O, nothin' much, gotta download meself some heaps (heaps and piles = files).

A: That right? New South Park?

B: Nah, man, I'm lookin' for a fish (fish hook = book), I 'ave a green eggs and ham (exam) next week!

A: Bugger, mate! You tried the Toad? (Megaupload)

B: Tried, but them guys took it down good...

A: What?! Damn, I'd like to kick them in the Albert Halls!

In a famous scene from Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Tom (Jason Flemyng) hears an anecdote about why Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood) should not be underestimated. With subtitles!
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