Understanding Cockney Rhyming Slang

Mike from the US writes with an interesting question:

“I’m an American. I have a Master’s Degree. I speak 2 other languages besides English and I still have to watch Guy Ritchie and some other English movies with subtitles.

Do people who use the Cockney rhyming slang all use the same celebrities’ names? Otherwise, do they have to stop and think about what’s being rhymed with what? Or do they all use the same rhyme for a particular word?

That’s what I don’t quite get. Baffled.


We say:

The use of celebrities names for Cockney Rhyming Slang is relatively recent – only in the last twenty/thirty years have celebrities names come to dominate. So now we get Britney Spears instead of apples and pears. This trend is probably developing in tandem with our celebrity obsessed culture.

Rhyming slang must be the same for both the speaker and the listener. You can’t just “make it up”. In our dictionary we allow ratings to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the rhyming slang that is most widely used and the slang that is restricted to very small groups.

One example is Pete Tong for wrong. This is very widely understood – in London and South England anyway. Nearly everybody will understand this to mean “wrong”.

Yes in general all speakers will use the same rhyming slang for the same word. So for example everybody will use loaf to mean “head”. However, some words have many rhyming slang alternatives, and most people will be aware of the alternatives. An example being slang for hand which currently has 7 alternatives, most of which are well known.

It’s complicated Mike! Come and visit us in London and see for yourself. And don’t forget those movies don’t really reflect real life – they are highly exaggerated.