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Page last updated at 09:35 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 10:35 UK
Would you Adam & Eve it?

Ryhming Slang
Apples & Pears; Dog & Bone

BBC London talks to leading lexicographer John Ayto about the past, present and future of the capital's very own secret language.

What are the origins of Cockney Rhyming Slang?

It is disputed area, no one is totally sure when it began but it seems to started to arise in the latter part of the 18th century in the speaking community of low life criminals and down and out petty criminals in the London area. It is often claimed that it was introduced as a secret language code to discourage people who were not in their circles from knowing what they were talking about.

There was a great fondness for secret language and 'punning' in the 18th and 19th century. Not just rhyming slang but things like 'Back Slang' where you pronounce the word backwards and something called 'Pig Latin' where you take the last letter and stick it on the front. It's always seemed to me that the main motivation was just having fun with words.

Is it still going strong?

It seemed to have gone into something of a decline and people were talking about it dying out in the early 20th century. Orwell made a reference to it in the 1930s when he said that no one uses it anymore. But it's still alive and kicking. You can't kill it off. It has waves of popularity and people are still creating it.

What is rhyming slang's influence on the English language?

The first is an artificial thing. It's a museum piece that we are very fond of and proud of. It's almost not part of the ordinary language, but a British heritage item. It is almost as much an icon of British life as Tower Bridge.

But it also has another influence of filtering into the general language. Most rhyming slang has two parts and it is common to cut off the second bit, the rhyming bit. When this happens the link with the original rhyme gets lost and people don't realise it. It just melts into the background of the language. Most people when they say 'on your tod' for being on your own, maybe don't realise they are using rhyming slang for Todd Sloan - a famous American jockey from the 19th century.

Is rhyming slang used in other parts of the country?

Celebrity slang
Adrian Chiles - piles
Billie Pipers - windscreen wipers
Puff Daddy - golf caddie
Britney Spears - Beers


There is also a tradition of Scottish rhyming slang but London has always been the hot bed. But people all over the country are aware of it. It's much more homogenous than it used to be. People from all parts of the country will be familiar with rhyming slang.

What about text messaging and how young people use language today?

I think it is the product of the same human ability to manipulate language. Text messaging abbreviation style is by no means new in itself. People have been using that sort of abbreviating writing probably ever since writing was invented. I would say it is another strand of evidence to support the idea that humans are extremely skilled in manipulating their language they use for whatever means they need.

Celebrity names are popular for new rhyming slang. Is that indicative of the times we live in now?

Up to a point - using celebrities' names is nothing new in itself. In a sense it has given rhyming slang a new lease of life, but there is a very old history of using celebrity names, such as Diana Dors for drawers. What is slightly different now is that other types of rhyming have dropped away and the celebrity names have become much more high profile by contrast. It is now, by far, the main method of making new rhymes.

I think it shows the vitality of English. That people are not just passive repeaters of what they hear but they have the imagination and like playing about with it.

Do you have a favourite rhyming slang?

It changes every day, but I've always had a soft spot for Alan Whickers for knickers.

John Ayto is the author of several books about etymology, slang and the English Language. His books include A Century of New Words, The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins and Twentieth Century Words.




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