Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I love the English language. I love its immense vocabulary, largest of them all. I love its rich history of assimilation, which began with multiple invasions of the scepter’d isle itself, continued with the Earth-girdling expansion of the Empire, and which, with English now the international language of science and commerce, still shows no sign of abatement.

It is a tricky, idiosyncratic tongue, full of broken rules and irregular spellings, in which a single string of letters can take a bewildering variety of pronunciations (consider cough, though, through, plough, and rough). But from the pen or tongue of a master – one such as Shakespeare, Churchill, Joyce, Nabokov, Perelman, Tennyson, Austen, Twain, Wodehouse, Dickens, Pope, Swift, Shelley – the English language can lilt, command, evoke, arouse, describe, amuse, exalt, gladden, inform, seduce, provoke, abash, and delight with incomparable beauty, power and nuance.

But the icing on the cake is Cockney rhyming slang.

You might not know what I’m talking about. Rhyming slang has its roots in the East End of London, where legend has it that it arose as a sort of codetalk for the criminal classes. Whatever its original purpose, its effect is to obscure the meaning of a sentence. This is achieved by replacing a word by the first word of some common phrase that rhymes with the word to be replaced. For example, the perfectly ordinary word “stairs” might become “apples”, which is short for the phrase “apples and pears” (which rhymes, of course, with “stairs”). Got it?

There are a couple of examples that have found their way into American usage. We all know what it means to “razz” someone – it refers to the common practice of making a flatulent sound with the tongue and lips in order to add pungency to our jeering. Fewer know, however, that the word “razz” is short for “raspberry”, which is in turn an abbreviation of the phrase “raspberry tart”, which of course rhymes with “fart”, a distinguished word of ancient pedigree (O.E. feortan).

Another example found here in the States is “dukes” for fists. The usage comes from “Duke of Yorks”, which rhymes with “forks”, which was slang for one’s hands.

Sometimes the redirection can go several layers deep. For example, our East Ender referring to a third party he considers to be a nuisance might say something like:

“Cor, ‘e’s a righ’ pain in the plaster, innee?”

The item of interest here is the word “plaster”. It unpacks as follows:

“Plaster” is short for “plaster of Paris”, which rhymes with “Aris”. “Aris”, in turn, is a truncation of “Aristotle”, which rhymes, in turn, with “bottle”. We are approaching the goal. “Bottle” is a foreshortening of the phrase “bottle and glass”, which is a rhyme for the artfully concealed referent: the familiar word “ass”. Simple, right?

Back in 1988 I recorded and mixed an eponymous album for the “alternative” band Grace Pool (if you can find it, buy it). The producer was a remarkable Englishman by the name of Steve Nye, a gifted musician, producer and engineer, who had cut his teeth at Abbey Road under the great Geoff Emerick (you’ll have to find your own links for all of this). We got along well, and when I let slip that I found rhyming slang interesting, he offered me a guided tour by speaking hardly a single plaintext sentence for the rest of the project. A typical exchange:

“Hey Steve! Where’s Bob?”
” ‘E’s on the dog to the trouble.”

Translation: “He’s on the phone [‘dog and bone’] to the wife [‘trouble and strife’].

You can learn a lot more about rhyming slang here. Go and ‘ave a butcher’s.

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