A Guide to Cockney Slang for Students Living Abroad
London is recognised all over the world for its universities, history and culture, but it’s also worth knowing that many of the longstanding locals have a special way of speaking known as Cockney slang. Becoming familiar with even a little bit of this will go a long way in the city, helping you understand people better, not to mention getting them to warm up to you. Bus drivers, neighbours, plumbers, landlords and cabbies, you’ll find it everywhere. When it comes to life in London, it helps to know the lingo.
First, who or what are Cockneys? Technically a Cockney is anyone born within earshot of the Bow Bells that belong to the historic Church of Saint Mary-le-Bow in London’s East End. But more generally, a Cockney is a traditional working-class Londoner, known for their cheerful, happy-go-lucky nature.
Famous Cockneys include television actresses and national treasures Dame Barbara Windsor and June Brown, who play the characters Peggy Mitchell and Dot Cotton, respectively, in the long-running BBC soap opera EastEnders. The singer Ian Dury of the Blockheads is another well-loved Cockney, best known for his slang-heavy song ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Pt. 3’.
The term Cockney also covers a very unique accent mixed in with an entertaining use of language. The basic idea is rhyming slang, where you take a word or phrase and replace them with others that rhyme. The classic case is ‘apples and pears’. This simply means ‘stairs’, and it comes from the days when grocers would cleverly display their fruits and vegetables in a particular raised-up style. A lot of Cockney slang works like this, referring back to items and events from everyday life.
Then there’s ‘bees and honey’ for ‘money’. It’s not as random as it might seem at first glance as the bee represents labour and the honey the reward. And if you’re enjoying a night out on the town with your new friends, a Cockney might say you were ‘Scotch mist’. This rhymes with a certain mild British swear word but also links to how the mist of the Scottish Highlands clouds your vision, as being drunk may make it hard to see. Similarly, you might be drunk because you’ve had some ‘Pig’s ears’, aka ‘big beers’.
On that note, Port, the drink, is referred to as ‘didn’t ought’, as in, ‘I didn’t ought to have another drink’. Or perhaps you’ve had some Veras? Vera Lynn, a famous wartime singer, contributes her name to no less than three Cockney terms: ‘Vera’ can mean ‘skin’ as in cigarette paper, the chin on your face or a glass of gin.
Food also plays a big role in this fascinating form of speech, so you might have your breakfast cereal with ‘satin and silk’, otherwise known as milk, hinting at its smooth, creamy texture. And you might put satin and silk in your ‘Rosy Lee’ - a cup of tea. But make sure you watch out for ‘tea leaves’, better known simply as ‘thieves’.
Cockney slang might seem odd at first but there’s a special kind of logic to it and once you know the basics you’re sure to pick up the general idea. If you’re truly stuck, simply ask what it means. You’ll find most true Cockneys are more than happy to share their knowledge and help pass on their entertaining phrases to a whole new set of people.