account of the rhyming slang - The Slang Dictionary




There exists in London a singular tribe of men, known amongst the “fraternity of vagabonds” as chaunters and patterers. Both classes are great talkers. The first sing or chaunt through the public thoroughfares ballads—political and humorous—carols, dying speeches, and the various other kinds of gallows and street literature. The second deliver street orations on grease-removing compounds, plating powders, high-polishing blacking, and the thousand-and-one wonderful penny-worths that are retailed to gaping mobs from a London kerb-stone.

They are quite a distinct tribe from the costermongers; indeed, amongst tramps, they term themselves the “harristocrats of the streets,” and boast that they live by their intellects. Like the costermongers, however, they have a secret tongue or cant speech known only to each other. This cant, which has nothing to do with that spoken by the costermongers, is known in Seven Dials and elsewhere as the “rhyming slang,” or the substitution of words and sentences which rhyme with other words intended to be kept secret. The chaunter’s cant, therefore, partakes of his calling, and he transforms and uses up into a rough speech the various odds and ends of old songs, ballads, and street nicknames, which are found suitable to his purpose. Unlike nearly all other systems of cant, the rhyming slang[359] is not founded upon allegory; unless we except a few rude similes, thus—“I’m afloat” is the rhyming cant for “boat,” “sorrowful tale” is equivalent to “three months in jail,” “artful dodger” signifies a “lodger,” and a “snake in the grass” stands for a “looking-glass”—a meaning that would delight a fat Chinaman, or a collector of Oriental proverbs. But, as in the case of the costers’ speech and the old gipsy-vagabond cant, the chaunters and patterers so interlard this rhyming slang with their general remarks, while their ordinary language is so smothered and subdued, that, unless when they are professionally engaged, and talking of their wares, they might almost pass for foreigners.

From the inquiries I have made of various patterers and “paper-workers,” I learn that the rhyming slang was introduced about twelve or fifteen years ago.[61] Numbering this class of oratorical and bawling wanderers at twenty thousand, scattered over Great Britain, including London and the large provincial towns, we thus see the number of English vagabonds who converse in rhyme and talk poetry, although their habitations and mode of life constitute a very unpleasant Arcadia. These nomadic poets, like the other talkers of cant or secret languages, are stamped with the vagabond’s mark, and are continually on the move. The married men mostly have lodgings in London, and come and go as occasion may require. A few never quit London streets, but the greater number tramp to all the large provincial fairs, and prefer the “monkery” (country) to town life. Some transact their business in a systematic way, sending a post-office order to the Seven Dials’ printer for a fresh supply of ballads or penny books, or to the “swag shop,” as the case may be, for trinkets and gewgaws, to be sent on by rail to a given town by the time they shall arrive there.

When any dreadful murder, colliery explosion, or frightful[360] railway accident has happened in a country district, three or four chaunters are generally on the spot in a day or two after the occurrence, vending and bawling “A True and Faithful Account,” &c., which “true and faithful account” was concocted purely in the imaginations of the successors of Catnach and Tommy Pitts,[62] behind the counters of their printing-shops in Seven Dials. And but few fairs are held in any part of England without the patterer being punctually at his post, with his nostrums, or real gold rings (with the story of the wager laid by the gentleman—see fawney-bouncing, in the Dictionary), or savealls for candlesticks, or paste which, when applied to the strop, makes the dullest razor keen enough to hack broom handles and sticks, and after that to have quite enough sharpness left for splitting hairs, or shaving them off the back of one of the hands of a clodhopper, looking on in amazement. And Cheap John, too, with his coarse jokes, and no end of six-bladed knives, and pocket-books, containing information for everybody, with pockets to hold money, and a pencil to write with into the bargain, and a van stuffed with the cheap productions of Sheffield and “Brummagem,”—he, too, is a patterer of the highest order, and visits fairs, and can hold a conversation in the rhyming slang.

Such is a rough description of the men who speak this jargon; and simple and ridiculous as the vulgar scheme of a rhyming slang may appear, it must always be regarded as a curious fact in linguistic history. In order that the reader’s patience may not be too much taxed, only a selection of rhyming words has been given in the Glossary,—and these for the most part, as in the case of the back slang, are the terms of every-day life, as used by this order of tramps and hucksters.

It must not be supposed, however, that the chaunter or pat[361]terer confines himself entirely to this slang when conveying secret intelligence. On the contrary, although he speaks not a “leash of languages,” yet is he master of the beggar’s cant, and is thoroughly “up” in street slang. The following letter, written by a chaunter to a gentleman who took an interest in his welfare, will show his capabilities in this line:—

Dear Friend,[63]

Excuse the liberty, since i saw you last i have not earned a thick un, we have had such a Dowry of Parny that it completely Stumped Drory the Bossman’s Patter therefore i am broke up and not having another friend but you i wish to know if you would lend me the price of 2 Gross of Tops, Dies, or Croaks, which is 7 shillings, of the above-mentioned worthy and Sarah Chesham the Essex Burick for the Poisoning job, they are both to be topped at Springfield Sturaban on Tuesday next. i hope you will oblige me if you can, for it will be the means of putting a James in my Clye. i will call at your Carser on Sunday Evening next for an answer, for i want a [362]Speel on the Drum as soon as possible. hoping you and the family are All Square,

I remain Your obedient Servant,


The numerous allusions in the Glossary to well-known places in London show that this rude speech was mainly concocted in the metropolis. The police have made themselves partially acquainted with the back slang, but they are still profoundly ignorant of the rhyming slang.


Since the foregoing was written, matters have changed considerably, even, which I much doubt, if they ever were as is stated; for, as I have already remarked, wherever opportunity has occurred, the costermonger, the patterer, the chaunter, and the various other itinerants who “work” London and the provinces, delight in making themselves appear a most mysterious body; and this, when added to their natural disinclination to commit themselves to anything like fact so far as their natural enemies—inquirers, and well-dressed inquirers in particular—are concerned, has caused all sorts of extraordinary stories to be set afloat, which have ultimately led to an opinion becoming prevalent, that the costermonger and his friends form a race of beings differing entirely from those who mix in the ordinary humdrum routine of respectable life. Nothing could really be much further from fact. Any one who has ever been driven by stress of circumstances or curiosity to take up a permanent or temporary residence in any of the lodging-houses which abound in St. Giles’s, Saffron Hill, Turnmill Street, and in all parts of the eastern district of the metropolis, will bear me out[363] when I say that a more commonplace individual, so far as his inner life is concerned, than the London itinerant cannot possibly exist. Certainly he is ignorant, and takes a very limited view of things in general, and religion and politics in particular; but these peculiarities are held in common with his betters, and so cannot be regarded as the special prerogative of any class. If you ask him a question he will attempt to mislead you, because, by your asking the question, he knows you are ignorant of his way of life; and when he does not mystify from love of mischief, as it appears he does from all published books I have seen about him, he does so as a duty he owes his natural enemies, the parish authorities and the tract distributors, the latter of whom he holds in special abhorrence.

If the rhyming slang was ever, during its existence, regarded as a secret language, its secrecy has long since departed from it. Far easier of construction than even the back slang, it has been common, especially in several printing-offices I could name, for many years, while street-boys are great proficients in its small mysteries. The Glossary which follows here will explain a good deal of its mechanism; but it must be borne in mind that the rhymes are all matters of individual opinion, and that if one man says Allacompain means rain, another is quite justified in preferring Mary Blane, if his individual fancy lies in that direction. And now, if there is any secret about the rhyming slang, it is this—the rhyme is left out. This may at first seem extraordinary; but on reflection it will be seen that there is no other way of making the proceedings of its exponents puzzling to ordinarily sharp ears which have received the slightest clue. Thus, when the first word of a series only is used, and others in the sentence are made up from the back, the centre and various slangs, there is some hope of fogging an intruding listener to a private conversation. When a man is[364][365] drunk, the rhyming slang would illustrate that fact by the words “Elephant’s trunk;” but the practised hand confines himself to the statement that “Bill’s Elephants.” “Bullock’s horn” represents to pawn, but an article is said to be “Bullocked” only; and so on through the list, providing always that the curtailment represents two syllables; if it does not, then the entire rhyme is given.

I think that this will be sufficient to guide those readers anxious to become proficient themselves, or to understand others who are themselves proficient at this item in the world of slang; and so I have nothing more to say except to call attention to the fact that, in all the other introductions, I have made my corrections, which have been neither few nor unimportant, in the text; but that I could see no way of working on the subject of the rhyming slang fairly and explicitly other than by means of this note.—Editor.