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butcher knife

Let’s take a butcher’s at rhyming slang

Smile goggle-eyed at them and blow raspberries at them.
Jo was chatting to me on the dog
We would urge people to use their loaf when parking and make sure they don’t leave anything of value on display.

Rhyming slang, although almost 200 years old, is alive and kicking today: all the above examples are taken from our huge database of twenty-first century English, the Oxford English Corpus.

Many of us, if asked, could come up with at least one example of rhyming slang – it’s a playful type of language that’s easy to remember, and it’s fun to invent catchy new expressions as the mood takes you. Sometimes such language has become absorbed into idiomatic English usage and speakers may be unaware that they are using rhyming slang (use your loaf and blow a raspberry are prime examples of this), while at other times people use it more self-consciously so as to create a humorous effect.

Playing the joanna from 1846

According to John Ayto’s Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, rhyming slang is thought to have originated in the East End of London during the first half of the nineteenth century, hence the alternative term cockney rhyming slang. It was probably first used by street sellers, beggars, and petty criminals.  Early examples found in the Oxford English Dictionary include joanna = piano, first recorded in 1846, and barnet = a person’s hair (1857).

The growth of the modern mass media, such as radio and TV, together with greater social mobility, meant that during the last century rhyming slang spread outside London to other regions of the UK, and also to other English-speaking countries. In particular, rhyming slang gained a wider audience due to its use in popular movies such as The Italian Job and TV series such as Steptoe and Son, Only Fools and Horses, and The Sweeney.

Don’t get eaten by a noah: rhyming slang down under

Rhyming slang features strongly in Australian English and was first recorded there in the late nineteenth century. Since then, as Ayto remarks, the Australians ‘concocted an impressive rhyming vocabulary of their own’. Most of us have encountered the word chunder (from Chunder Loo = ‘spew’), and regard it as a quintessential Australianism. Other equally colourful Aussie rhyming expressions that are less familiar outside Australia include:

noah a shark
Joe Blake a snake
kanga a prison warder

Potential confusion lies in the fact that a handful of similar expressions have different meanings in British and Australian rhyming slang. So if you hear an Australian saying ‘she’s apples’, this has nothing to do with the familiar British rhyming slang, apples and pears (‘stairs’). Instead, she’s apples derives from apples and rice (‘nice’). On the other hand, there are different expressions in Australian and British rhyming slang with the same meaning: on one’s tod (British) and on one’s pat (Australian) both mean ‘on one’s own’.

apples pears

A DIY guide to rhyming slang

It’s simple to create your own rhyming slang. As a general rule, all you have to do is to take a word (sometimes a phrase) and replace it with a phrase or a two-word proper noun that rhymes with it. The final element of the original rhyming phrase is then often dropped, for instance:

Word/phrase Original rhyming expression Shortened rhyming slang form
look butcher’s hook butcher’s
talk rabbit and pork rabbit
car jam jar
phone dog and bone dog
on one’s own on one’s Jack Jones on one’s jack
pinch [i.e. ‘steal] half-inch
lie porky-pie porky
skint [i.e. ‘having no money’] boracic lint boracic
pissed [i.e. ‘drunk’] Brahms and Liszt
wig syrup of figs syrup

She was cooking a Ruby Murray but it went a bit Pete Tong…

Although the formation of rhyming slang on the names of famous people is not a new phenomenon (for example, on one’s tod, from the name of the American jockey Tod Sloan, dates from the 1930s) the last twenty years or so have seen a trend for new rhyming slang coinages to be formed on the names of celebrities and politicians. When using rhymes based on the names of pop stars, such slang was termed ‘popney’ rhyming slang, although this description was short-lived and little used, and never made it into our dictionary.

Here are a few of these more recent inventions (most of which are only used self-consciously or in media articles):

Tony Blairs flares
Britney Spears beers
Claire Rayners trainers
Pete Tong wrong
Calvin Klein wine
Shania Twain pain

I’m off now to enjoy a tasty Ruby Murray, but now you can see how it’s done, why don’t you try inventing your own rhyming slang?

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