Alright guv’nor, how accustomed are you to Cockney Rhyming Slang?


I was down the ‘battle cruiser’ last night having a ‘pig’s ear’ when someone ‘half-inched’ my wallet, I couldn’t ‘Adam and Eve’ it!

If you have no idea what I’m saying, then please read on.

Cockney rhyming slang is the practice of replacing words or sayings with rhyming phrases. The example above says, “I was in the pub last night having a beer when someone stole (pinched) my wallet, I couldn’t believe it!”

Many of us are aware that in certain parts of the UK, slipping occasional rhyming slang into conversations is rather habitual. In fact, many of these phrases are used in everyday conversation throughout Britain.

These quintessential “Ing-ger-lish” sayings are as much a part of British culture as being deafened by Manchester United supporters in your local pub or having fish ‘n’ chips on Brighton Pier. But not many of us know where they come from, or the meaning behind them.

Cockney Rhyming Slang is a 19th century invention derived from the East End of London. It’s not obvious how Cockney Rhyming Slang came about, but rumour has it that it was intended to be a type of code used between certain groups of people, so other people couldn’t follow their conversations. For example, it’s possible that it was used in the marketplace to allow collusion between vendors, without customers knowing what was being discussed.

It may sound like nonsense half of the time, but there are actually interesting and distinct meanings behind this historic wit, so let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Army and Navy (gravy)

For those of you who don’t know, gravy is a delicious sauce which Brits love to smother their food with – seriously, we practically add it to everything!

This phrase relates to the fact that there was an abundance of gravy at mealtimes in both services.


2. Butcher’s hook (look)

This relates to having an intense look at something, rather than a quick glance. Thus, “butcher’s hook” is used to indicate the piercing nature of the scrutiny required.


3. Can’t keep still (treadmill)

This refers to the treadwheel, a 19th Century device used as a useful way of employing convicts.


4. Dustbin lids (kids)

Dustbin is another word for trash can. This phrase refers to the mess that children make.


5. Apples and pears (stairs) – often shortened to apples

Ah, one of the most common Cockney Rhyming Slang expressions, dating back to the 1850’s. To a Cockney, the phrase “steps and stairs” means progression. Those who own market stalls have great skill in choosing which fruits to display at the front of their stall, thus, the selected samples of fruit and vegetables are graded in “steps and stairs”. Apples and pears are commonly found displayed at the front of market stalls, when in season.


6. Basin of gravy (baby)

I told you we had an obsession with gravy!

This particular Cockney saying relates to the softness of baby food.


7. Light and dark (park)

This particular phrase refers to the London County Council’s notice that the park gates should be locked at dusk.


8. Lion’s lair (chair)

This refers to the risk of disturbing the father of the household when he was taking his Sunday afternoon nap in an armchair – more than likely after scoffing his face with a delicious roast dinner!


9. Near and far (bar)

Derived from the English saying, “So near but yet so far”, this phrase refers to queuing to get a drink in a busy bar – because, what would English slang be without a pub reference?


10. Helter-skelter (an air-raid shelter)

A helter-skelter is a popular amusement park ride with a slide built in a spiral around a high tower.

This phrase refers to the speed required to run to such a refuge and the fact that air raid shelters were often underground.

Be sure to make the most of these sayings next time you’re in “Landaaan Tawhnn”!

Written by Emma Wynne – Communications Trainee at TermCoord