Although some foreigners and people living in other places in the UK, assume that all Londoners are cockneys, this isn’t technically 100% true.
The East London Cockney.
You can technically only be a Cockney if you were born in the East End of the city. To be really specific, you must have been born within the sound of Bow bells. These are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside. A survey of the bells and how far their ringing might have carried was done in 2000.
This actually gives more scope to be a Cockney than you might think, as they would have been heard six miles to the east, four miles to the west, five miles to the north and three miles to the south. Dick Whittington, according to legend, heard the bells in Highgate in North London before he turned back and came home.
This disputes the fact that Cockneys are all from the East End but few people born outside the area will take their claim to fame.
What does it take to be a Cockney?
It is thought that the word Cockney originates from the Norman word for a sugar cake, cocaigne. The Normans called London the ‘Land of Sugar Cake’ and the name seems to have stuck with some variations over the years. In the 1360s the writer William Langland also used the term ‘cockeney’ to mean cock’s egg.
This phrase was used to describe lazy city dwellers who didn’t have to work hard for a living according to their rural counterparts. Neither explanation may make a whole lot of sense but both tell us that Cockneys have been around for a fair amount of time!
If you ask anyone outside of the East End what defines a Cockney, most will tell you about Cockney Rhyming slang.
This is a language specific to the East End that is actually used by many other regions of the country now. It isn’t clear when rhyming slang started and why and there are various explanations on where it could have come from.
Some, for example, think it began in the 1840s and that it was used by costermongers and salesmen as a form of ‘patter’. Others think it was a secret language used by criminals and people skating close to the edge of the law to bamboozle police and outsiders. In either case, if you don’t understand the slang, it can be like listening to a foreign language, but it is fun to try and decipher.
The premise of Cockney rhyming slang is that it switches a word or phrase with another that rhymes with the original. So, for example, stairs become apple and pears, phone becomes dog and bone, wife becomes trouble and strife and hair becomes Barnet fair. Some of the slang dates back for centuries but the language is still evolving.
An Evolving Cockney Language
In recent years, additions to slang have included Tony Blairs for flares, Ruby Murray for curry and Britney Spears for beers. You can hear these phrases all over the country, though they will, ideally, not be delivered in a Mockney accent. Mockney accents are usually adopted by people who want to look working class when they are actually quite posh.
It’s best not to do Mockney when you meet a Cockney because they will laugh and they may get quite irritable if they think you are showing off.
Similarly, don’t take Cockney lessons from Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. That just didn’t work on any level at all and no self-respecting Cockney will ever talk like that. Michael Caine did a much better job than Dick in the film Alfie. Technically, he isn’t a Cockney either as he was born in South London but I guess that is close enough.
East London Pearly Kings and Queens
Many people think that Pearly Kings and Queens are all East Enders, but this isn’t the case. Many of them are, but this tradition covers all Londoners. Pearly Kings and Queens, or Pearlies, are a working-class London tradition – they wear clothes that are intricately decorated with pearl buttons and do a lot of good work for charity.
They are so well known in London that a group of them even made an appearance in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Of course, not every East Ender can be a Pearly King or Queen – these are special jobs and there are local groups and dynasties operating all over the city.
So, given the original reach of the sound of Bow Bells, you don’t actually need to be born in the East End to qualify as being a Cockney – any working class Londoner near the area may consider themselves one. But, to get a real feel for the Cockney way of life, visit the East End and look for local market traders, shop owners and cabbies. If you’re really lucky, they’ll treat you to some rhyming slang!