"What did you think about it?." It seemed on the face of it, a strange invitation from a con to a copper. Dobbs gave me a small reassuring laugh and said, "I thought he was trying a to Doggett a Chinese dinner."

"Did you say 'Doggett,' Inspector?" Mr Morse was puzzled. This time I was able to translate.

"Of course he did, Morse. 'Doggett's coat and badge.' Means 'cadge.' Thieves' rhyming slang. The language used by Charlie Pointer and Detective Instector Dobbs." — John Mortimer's barrister speaking in "Rumpole and the Rotten Apple" (1981)

decorated initial 'N' obody seems to know for certain when Cockney rhyming slang began. Some say as early as the seventeenth century, others date it from Sir Robert Peel's 1829 Act of Parliament which set up the modern police service. The argument goes that petty criminals invented it to hide what they had to say from the peelers (or bobbies). That's a bit unlikely, though, since the police were recruited from the same streets and would grow up speaking the argot anyway, and in any case it's easy to learn.

A book published in 1859 by John Camden Hotten might give a truer answer. A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words tells us rhyming slang was invented between 1844 and 1847. The evidence for this he gathered in the Seven Dials, a notorious rookery or slum named after a seven-faced sundial at the junction of seven streets. Hotten says specifically it wasn't invented by costermongers, who later in the century used it more than most, but by two other sets of street traders: chaunters and patterers. He calculated there were about twenty thousand of them, and they travelled all over England to fairs and provincial towns hawking their wares.

Patterers were hucksters selling what Hotten called gewgaws and trinkets, penny gold rings, pennyworths of grease-remover, polish, blacking, plating powder and a paste which when spread on shaving strops sharpened razors till you cut through a broom handle with them and still split a hair.

Chaunters were also called paper workers or running stationers because they sold — and sang — ballads on penny broadsheets. Within two or three days of a gruesome railway or colliery accident, a hanging or a suicide, the hustlers would be there with their True and Faithful Accounts. It was gallows literature, with dreadful confessions of murderers and death bed speeches. "They converse in rhyme and talk poetry," Hotten said, but added their lives are lived far from Arcady. But they also suggest the reason why rhyming slang may have been more closely associated with the Dials than elsewhere, since it was home to the publishers of the ballads they hawked throughout England. Interestingly both chaunters and patterers were already using the newly invented railways: money was sent via the Post Office, and new ballads and gewgaws were despatched by rail.

To begin with, then, rhyming slang wasn't Cockney at all. A Cockney (strictly speaking) is born in the sound of Bow Bells, the church of St Mary le Bow in Cheapside in the City of London. The Dials were just outside Westminster, a different city altogether. (London is made up of two cities and innumerable villages which the Victorians formed into boroughs.)

So what is rhyming slang, Cockney or otherwise? The general rule is to find a rhyme with the second word of a well known two-word phrase. Thus, to take a Victorian example which hasn't survived, weeping willow stands for pillow. Cake was (but no longer is) shiver and shake. Girl was twist and twirl, and is also obsolete. Usually, but not always, the rhyming word of the phrase is dropped and the first word only is used. For example a suit (the one you wear) is a whistle, from whistle and flute. Titfer is a hat (tit for tat).More rarely both words are retained. Tea-leaf is thief and was so from the beginning. So too was half-inch (pinch or steal). All these words are still in use, so both the Victorians and any number of people alive today could all say: "which of you tea-leaves has half-inched my whistle and my titfer?"

(Note: the Cockney dialect is almost entirely unaspirated — aitches are never sounded. Today, people who would never otherwise dream of dropping an aitch will happily say 'alf-inched and 'oppimg-pot (as in 'that's your 'opping pot', meaning 'that's your lot, there is no more.' It comes from the fields of Kent where Cockneys could earn a little money, and have a kind of holiday, picking hops in the summertime)).

The other point to make is that rhyming slang is a living language and as such changes all the while. Hotten mentions bird-lime for time, but that has dropped out of use. Face to him was Chevy Chase; today that has been replaced by boat (boat race — after the annual Oxford vs Cambridge event on the Thames). Hotten's east and south (mouth) is now north and south. Teeth to him were hounslows after the heath west of London which at one time was notorious for highwaymen and is now Heathrow airport. Today (if it is still in use) we'd say hampsteads after Hampstead Heath, the great open space of ponds and woods on the hills of north London.

Hotten has River Lea for tea, from London's second major river. Today we say rosie lee, and derive it from Gypsy Rose Lee, a twentieth-century strip tease artiste. (You can say a cup of rosie, or a cup of rosie lee; either is good usage.) Hotten's barnet (Barnet Fair, hair) is still very much in use, and is not always recognised as rhyming slang at all. Barnet is now a north London borough, but in the 1850s would still have been a village. Why, I always wondered, did Londoners care about a village fair? Most Londoners probably didn't but, if Hotten is right, the itinerant peddlers from the Dials certainly would have.

In some cases, words have been kept but with a changed meaning. Rory O'More is still in use; to the Victorians it meant floor, today it is door. Plates of meat then stood for street, today it is feet (as in 'my plates are killing me'.) Others have died out because what they described has also gone: a Camden Town was a halfpenny (the slang word for it was 'brown'), a coin no longer in use. Likewise with Covent Garden; it stood for farthing (a fourth-ing or quarter of a penny) and shows that Londoners must have pronounced it 'farden'.

Other words are clearly later. Dog and bone, phone, had to wait for Alexander Graham Bell. Gin, during the Second World War, was Vera Lynn, after the singer ('There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover'). To the Victorians gin was Brian O'Linn, though who he was I don't know. Rock 'n' roll is something I came across only recently. It stands for the dole — unemployment benefit paid out of social security.

Today some words are probably only used as a joke. I don't think anybody says 'trouble and strife' (wife) unselfconsciously. On the other hand people frequently say: 'I never said a dickie-bird' (word) without thinking it at all out of the way or odd. Likewise with 'butchers' or 'loaf'. For example: 'Oh, use your loaf and take another butchers', meaning 'use your head (loaf of bread) and look (butcher's hook) again.'

Again, some words have become so common their rhyming slang origins have been forgotten. To rabbit is to talk, in a non-stop kind of way, and originally was part of the phrase 'rabbit and pork'. 'On your tod' (to be on your own or alone) is very common but I learned only recently it is rhyming slang, derived from Todd Sloan, though who he was I have no idea.

Occasionally people mistakenly think a word is rhyming slang when in fact it isn't. Scarper, for example, is very commonly used; it means 'go' but with the connotation of hurry, of running away, often with ill-gotten gains. Some people now say it is from Scapa Flow, though it clearly isn't. The spelling alone tells us that, but more conclusively it was in use in the 1850s when Scapa Flow would have been unknown to Londoners: it is in the remote Orkney Islands and entered public consciousness only when it became a naval anchorage in the Great War. (The German High Seas Fleet was scuttled there after surrendering.) Perhaps it's an example of a pre-existing word being up-dated when new knowledge came along.

Finally, who now speaks in rhyming slang? To the Victorians it was the disreputable lower orders. Today its dynamism and colourfulness make it attractive to many of the racier parts of a less hidebound society. Bits of it, at least, can be used by anybody. It's also travelled a little: Australia has its own examples (grundies are said to be underwear, named a local manufacturer called Mr Grundy). A word or two may well have reached the USA: bread, the word for money in the hey-day of the hippie, is derived from bread and honey, or at least it is in modern London (it was sugar and honey to the Victorians).

Well, I could rabbit on for quite a while longer but for the moment that's your 'opping pot: it's time to hit the frog and toad (road, according to Mr Hotten) and scarper or perhaps even scapa flow.

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Last modified 16 July 2007