Rhyming and Stealing

The spread of a London ludling (Argots, Part 3)

When talking about argots, one inevitably arrives at rhyming slang. Indeed, this series has already mentioned it a few times, so let’s take a closer look. No one knows exactly when or how it started, but it seems in London of the 19th century, some folks needed a cryptolect. In order to create one, they used the playful mechanism of rhyme. The OED’s first record comes from 1846: aunt joanna, meaning “piano”.

That another early term round the houses is rhymed with (and so used to mean) “trousers” also tells us the prevailing accent of the region is non-rhotic. This is a characteristic of many accents of England, but in the area in question the accent that dominates is so strongly associated with the argot it is often termed Cockney rhyming slang, though, as we shall see, there are other varieties. Cockney, though sometimes used to describe all Londoners, is distinctly working class and particularly of the city’s East End: it’s the dialect of Eliza Doolittle and Michael Caine.

As I’ve shown in previous articles, the line between ludling and argot is a fluid one, with ludlings sometimes moving into argotic territory and back again. The border between the two is intelligibility to outsiders. Even with her childhood ludling, idig, Jessica Weiss recalls,¹

[…] creating variations of idig at the neighborhood pool, making it even more impossible for boys and teachers to understand.

If Weiss were successful in this effort, her ludling would essentially become an argot. There is often a kind of layering that occurs based on this need, as with 86, I’ve mentioned earlier, which combines a borrowing from another language, normalizes the spelling into English, and then passes it through the filter of rhyming slang in order to provide that word with the meaning, “cancel”.

Indeed, rhyming slang, which I’ve raised a few times as being clearly ludic, can turn quite quickly from a game to something rather devious. Initially, it seems straightforward: take a word you want to indicate, find a phrase that rhymes with it, then substitute that phrase for the word. This gives you terms such as:

  • plates of meat: feet
  • sorrowful tale: jail
  • trouble and strife: wife

This is the easy level; the substitute phrases not only rhyme with the word they are indicating, but are also linked semantically. If you weren’t privy to the game, you still might be able to puzzle out the meaning, especially given contextual clues—if someone’s in a sorrowful tale, for example, you might at least start thinking in the right direction.

On the next level, there’s no semantic relationship to follow, only the rhyme. Some examples are:

  • apples and pears: stairs
  • butcher’s hook: look
  • loaf of bread: head

One could still hope to get some information from context; consider “I went up the apples and pears” versus “the apples and pears are over there”. In the second one, someone could really be talking about fruit, but in the first, the preposition up lets you know the phrase is not being used in a standard way, and then thinking about things one goes up, you might very well hit upon stairs.

The rhyme still acts as a bridge to the meaning, but a further level removes that bridge. As Professor of English Simon Horobin notes:²

The tendency for slang to be altered in speech, and for speakers to omit the second, rhyming, component, can make such terms particularly opaque to an outsider.

When this shortening is performed, we are left with:

  • bubble: Greek
  • raspberry: fart
  • tea: thief

The redacted rhymes being respectively and squeak, tart, and leaf. Suddenly it gets pretty hard—you have to guess what completes the phrase as well as what it rhymes with. Here are some of the ones I’ve previously mentioned, so you can also see how their connections attenuate:

  • aunt: piano
  • round: pants
  • plates: feet
  • sorrowful: jail
  • trouble: wife
  • apples: stairs
  • butcher’s: look

loaf: head

One imagines using 80 or even eight to mean “cancel” could have been another trick in this game. A similar case to 86 appears in:

  • dukes: hands

Together with 86 and raspberry (often shortened to razz), dukes is one of only a few words commonly used in American English derived from rhyming slang. It’s exclusively used in the context of telling someone to prepare to fight in the phrase, “put up your dukes.” Because this association was so strong, the word was also verbed, through a standard process of our language to simply mean “fight”, as in duke it out.

So how did we get from hand to duke? Forks had already been used as a slang term for hands via a fairly obvious analogy, then rhyming slang added duke of York to the mix. Which is also confusing, because duke has also been used to mean “walk” using the same rhyme or “cork”, “chalk”, or, for that matter, an actual fork.

Furthermore, there are other dukes, meaning:

  • bent or rent (of Kent)
  • nose (of Montrose)
  • rain (of Spain)

And duke is far from alone in this, bottle is a similarly troublesome example, carrying a large range of meanings:

  • ass (and glass)
  • bowler (of cola)
  • bum (i.e., ass) (of rum)
  • copper (i.e., policeman) (and stopper)
  • daughter (of porter)
  • ear (of beer)
  • horse (of sauce)
  • shop (of pop)
  • two (of glue)
  • watch (of scotch)

The other way around, laugh can be expressed using:

  • bird (bath)
  • bubble (bath)
  • cow’s (calf)
  • bobble (-hat and scarf) also wooly (-hat and scarf), hat (and scarf)
  • jimmy (Giraffe)
  • rory (McGrath)
  • steffi (Graf)
  • tin (bath)
  • turkish (bath)

I’ll note this is only a moderately large group of synonyms; if I were to list the terms for say money or drunk, for example, they could easily become articles of their own. At any rate, one can see how Byzantine the argot is, with words that are current or passé or that are more or less acceptable among different groups.

You might also have noticed some of the references in this last group are distinctly non-19th century. Indeed, the lexicon continues to expand, with “popney”, focusing on slang deriving from the names of famous people, including.

  • becks (i.e., David Beckham and Posh Spice): dosh (money)
  • calvin (Klein): wine
  • scooby (Doo): clue

Some traditionalists don’t approve of such coinages, deriding the new slang as “mockney”. There are distinct regional versions throughout England as well as Northern Ireland, reflecting local terms and rhymes, as bacon (sarnie, slang for “sandwich”): “Pakistani” does for some Northern English dialects. There is also a New Zealand branch and an Australian one that gives us its own terms, like:

  • apples (and rice): nice
  • kanga (roo): screw (i.e., prison warder)
  • noah (-’s ark): shark

86 appears to reflect a thriving rhyming slang culture in America. No one knows exactly where the term sprang up, but the possible etymologies seem to focus on New York City: some suggest it came from Delmonico’s Restaurant, and was the item number of their house steak, which they’d frequently run out of, and others that it was the address of the front entrance to a famous speakeasy called Chumley’s, and would be shouted to let patrons know they should flee out the back door. Neither holds up especially well to scrutiny, and one of the OED’s example sentences tells us the word,³

[…] among habitues has as many etymons as Homer had home-places, such probably being boozed up ex cathedra.

So why do so few rhyming slang terms remain in American English? Perhaps I’m overestimating how thriving the culture was and there was never a lexicon that went far beyond the few remnants I’ve pointed out. Or maybe the cryptolect was so deep and impenetrable it wasn’t discovered, let alone recorded. I like to think there are dimly lit corners of America where a marginalized culture still communicates below mainstream society’s radar using an argot rooted in rhyming slang.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1A: The Slang of Empyrea’s Automata

Part 1B: Canargy: a Cant How-To

Part 2A: Serious and Playful Cryptolects

Part 2B: Me Talk Pretty Ludling


  1. “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girls Speak Gibberish”, Schwa Fire, Jessica Weiss, 2015.
  2. “Only Fools and Horses in the OED”, Oxford Dictionary blogs, 2018.
  3. Peter Tamony, Americanisms: Content and Continuum, 1964, quoted in the OED entry for “eighty-six”.

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