London Olympic Visitors Must Navigate Cockney Slang

Americans and Britons share the same language, yet transatlantic visitors to the London Olympics might struggle to understand what's going on. The games are in East London, home of rhyming slang, a form of linguistic gymnastics. It was pioneered in the nineteenth century by Cockneys as a code to confuse snooping policemen.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A place where everyone is looking ahead eagerly, we must presume - to the opening of the Olympics this summer.

NPR's London-based correspondent, Philip Reeves, sends us an occasional letter about the games. His latest contains a warning for those planning to go to the Olympics. Phil says if you think you'll get around London easily just because you speak English, think again.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Americans and Britons enjoy sharing a mother tongue. I mean, we understand one another pretty well, don't we? Well, no - not always. English spoken by the British has some bizarre variance. One of the weirdest of these is found in the kingdom's capital.

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REEVES: The Olympic Games will be based here in East London, in one of the city's poorest parts. This isn't much like the London of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. It's a drab, flat sprawl north of the River Thames. If you're planning to come, prepare to be baffled. People 'round here speak in code.

Listen, for a minute, to Eastenders Nicola McCluskey and Jackie Dunning.

NICOLA MCCLUSKEY: Apples and pears is stairs, mince pies is eyes.

JACKIE DUNNING: Daisy roots is your boots.

MCCLUSKEY: Yeah.

REEVES: The Olympics are being held in the heartland of Cockney rhyming slang. This odd linguistic device was introduced in Victorian times by Cockney market traders who wanted to avoid being overheard by the police. The Cockneys used to be working-class Londoners from the East End. Many have moved out of town, and up the social ladder.

These days in East London, you hear a vast range of languages - from Urdu to Polish. Yet Cockney rhyming slang continues to thrive.

DUNNING: People use it every day. I mean, we use it; we don't even know we're using it, do we? You know, you say something and it's just part of what we say.

MCCLUSKEY: It's like our everyday speech. So I'll say to the girls, I'll just quickly run up the apples and pears.

DUNNING: My husband sat and taught my son Cockney rhyming slang right from being little...

REEVES: Did he?

DUNNING: ... because it's important, yeah.

GORDON SMITH: Ah, well, those are examples - parts of the body, for example.

REEVES: Gordon Smith collects Cockney rhyming slang for fun and puts it on his website, CockneyRhymingSlang.co.uk.

SMITH: Starting from the top, you've got your Barnet Fair; that's your hair. You've got your boat race; that's your face. You've got your I suppose; that's your nose; mince pies, north and south...

REEVES: Gregory Peck, what's that?

SMITH: Well, that's your neck.

REEVES: You see how it works, right? You take a word - let's say, talk; replace it with a rhyming phrase, rabbit and pork; and drop the rhyming word. Thus, the word for talking too much in Cockney becomes a small, furry animal.

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CHAS & DAVE: (Singing) Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit...

REEVES: Four and a half months remain before the start of the Olympics. The verbal gymnastics have already begun. London's bloggers, including Smith, are busy compiling rhyming slang especially for the games.

SMITH: We've got the cycling. And the word bike is Dick Van Dyke in Cockney rhyming slang. Tennis players will be using balls, so that's Albert Halls. And these are all genuine Cockney expressions.

REEVES: There's a rumor the rhyming slang for the Games themselves is the Sids, after the late Sid James. You may not have heard of him, but he was a big comedy star in Britain, thanks largely to the "Carry On" movies.

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REEVES: Eastenders Nicola McCluskey and Jackie Dunning don't think the Sids will catch on.

MCCLUSKEY: Oh, I've not heard that one.

DUNNING: No. See, there's a lot of new slang brought out by people. And like some of it, you have to say to them, what does that mean? because it's not the true slang, is it?

MCCLUSKEY: Yeah, it' not like we was taught when we was younger.

REEVES: It's fake.

MCCLUSKEY: Yeah.

DUNNING: Yeah, and we won't have it. We want the true ones.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONSIDER YOURSELF")

JACK WILD: (as the Artful Dodger) (Singing) Consider yourself at home. Consider yourself...

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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