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Last Updated: Friday, 27 May, 2005, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Rhyme of the times
By Stephen Robb
BBC News

It's All Gone Pete Tong (Vertigo Films)
Cockney rhyming slang is in rude health, buoyed by new phrases largely based on celebrity names. But will these stand the test of time?

Would you Adam 'n' Eve it? A whistle and pop DJ's name has only gone and shown it's one of the Mae West-known examples of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by providing the title of a new film. (Translation: a top DJ's name has proved it's one of the best-known examples of Cockney rhyming slang by becoming a film title.)

It's All Gone Pete Tong, released in the UK on Friday, tells the fictional story of a legendary disc jockey's battle with deafness.

It also confirms that the phrase - meaning "it's all gone wrong" to the uninitiated - has managed the rare achievements for rhyming slang of longevity and mainstream use.

Music Week magazine recently described it as the "all-conquering phrase that somehow seemed to sum it all up at certain points of the 90s". Pete Tong himself has said it featured in music fanzines as far back as the late 1980s.

"Most of these coinages are off-the-cuff and then disappear - it's very interesting that this particular one has survived so well," says John Ayto, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang.

I am sure a lot of people who come across the phrase haven't got the remotest idea who [Pete Tong] is
John Ayto
But predicting which phrases will survive, and which will flare but briefly, is an inexact science, he says, because of the lack of consistent traits among those that endure.

"I would have thought it would help if it was snappy or short, as this one is. I also might have thought it would help if people were familiar with the name, but that's not certain to be the case here. I'm sure a lot of people who come across the phrase haven't got the remotest idea who he is."

Almost famous

The earliest records of rhyming slang date from the 1850s, when it is thought to already have been in use for some decades. The appropriation of celebrity names was a feature almost immediately.

Britney Spears - beers
Claire Rayners - trainers
Ayrton Senna - tenner
Lionel Blairs - flares
Alan Whickers - knickers
Ruby Murray - curry
Tod Sloane - own (on your own)
Jonathon Green, author of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, believes the earliest example is the 19th Century boxer Jem Mace, whose name became slang for face.

Today most newly-coined slang is based on famous names. "No doubt that's not unconnected with the modern cult of celebrity," says Mr Ayto.

"I think it's all part of a D-list celebrity's checklist," says Mr Green. "You do some piece of ghastly reality TV, you do some kind of kiss-and-tell story, and you become a piece of rhyming slang."

"Britney Spears" for beers and "Posh and Becks" for sex are among the latest examples. But some slang terms have long outlived the fame of the star who inspired it. Curry is referred to as "Ruby Murray", a Belfast singer popular in the 1950s, and slang for "on your own" is "on your Tod Sloane", after a US jockey successful 100 years ago.

So could it all go Pete Tong for the slang phrase which became a film?

"The test will be whether people are still using it when he has long hung up his decks, and we cannot tell that yet," says Mr Green. "Britney Spears meaning 'beers' is never going to last the time that 'apples and pears' (stairs) has. I would not imagine that in 10 years, let alone 110, 'Posh and Becks' will mean anything."

Pete Tong
On the slang heap
But rhyming slang itself is here to stay, especially when given a boost by something as high profile as a major film, says Mr Ayto.

"Rhyming slang's death has often been prematurely announced, but it's proved to be quite resilient. I predict a healthy future for it."

As for the man behind the slang, what does the superstar DJ make of the phrase coined in his honour?

"It often gets shouted at me in the street, especially lately. It's a weird and wonderful thing," says Pete Tong. "I don't use it myself - I leave that to other people. I have been known to say, 'It's all gone Jimmy Savile' though."

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