A Guide to London Slang

11th October 2021

A Guide to London Slang

Have Some Fun With London Slang


Rhyming slang is believed to have originated in the mid-19th century in the East End of London, with sources suggesting some time in the 1840s. It dates from around 1840 among the predominantly Cockney population of the East End of London who are well-known for having a characteristic accent and speech patterns

Rhyming slang works by replacing the word to be obscured with the first word of a phrase that rhymes with that word. For instance, "face" would be replaced by "boat," because face rhymes with "boat race." Similarly "feet" becomes "plates" ("plates of meat"), and "money" is "bread" (a very common usage, from "bread and honey"). Sometimes the full phrase is used, for example "Currant Bun" to mean "The Sun" (often referring to the British tabloid newspaper of that name). There is no hard and fast rule for this, and you just have to know whether a particular expression is always shortened, never shortened, or can be used either way.

Here are some of my favourite Cockney Slang phrases:


"Apples and pears" (stairs)

To the Cockney, the phrase "steps and stairs" describes the idea of gradation. Every good costermonger has skill in displaying the front of his stall. The selected samples of fruit and vegetables are expertly graded in "steps and stairs". Apples and pears, when in season, are common on each barrow and, when polished, create an arresting display.

"Basin of gravy" (baby)

Suggestive of the softness of the foods on which babies are fed. 

"Cut and carried" (married)

Applying only to the wife who is cut off from the parental support and carried (provided for) by her husband. 

"Derry and Toms" (bombs)

Referring not just to the famous London store, but to "derry" as to "have a derry on" meaning to dislike, referring to "down on", meaning prejudiced against, from Derry Down in Ireland.  

"Gay and hearty" (a party)

Describing how a social get-together should be.

"Helter-skelter" (an air-raid shelter)

Referring to the speed required to run to such a refuge and the fact they were often underground.

"In and out" (snout)

As in the nose through which people both inhale and exhale. 

"Lump of ice" (advice)

Which to receive sometimes can be very cold comfort. 

"Merry-go-round" (pound)

In the sterling sense. Referring to the saying that "money was made round to go round".

"Near and far" (bar)
As in the idea of "so near and yet so far" relating to a busy pub with a throng of waiting customers.  

"On the floor" (poor)
Used of temporarily penniless housewives.

"Penny-come-quick" (a trick)
A trick of confidence which if successfully made for easy money.  

"Rattle and clank" (bank)
Suggestive of the busy handling of coins. 

"Stand to attention" (pension)
As in that due to a long-serving, retired soldier. 

"True till death" (breath)
The connection is very apt.  

"Weep and wail" (a tale)
Used exclusively in reference to a beggar's tale.  

"Yet to be" (free)
In the sense both of without cost, implying a part of the good time coming, and without restraint, as in the release from prison.