This article is part of our Explore Your World Through Language campaign.
As the fourth-generation owner of his family-run pie and mash shop, F Cooke, in Shoreditch, London, Joe Cooke feeds the Cockney staple to a horde of hungry regulars and curious tourists every day. In addition to culinary traditions, he’s also keeping London’s linguistic heritage alive. We sat down with him to discuss the decline of Cockney rhyming slang and an even rarer language from the East End: back slang.
Culture Trip: First things first – you’re from an East End family, but do you consider yourself Cockney?
Joe Cooke: Strictly speaking, you should be born within the sound of Bow Bells at St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside to be a true Cockney. So, if you were born at Barts Hospital, which an enormous amount of people round here were, then you’re a Cockney. I was born, as indeed was my lovely wife, in Clapton, so you’d have to have bloody good ears to hear the Bow Bells from there. But I think, generally, anyone from the East End would consider themselves to be a Cockney.
CT: How proud are you of your heritage?
JC: I’m proud of my roots, of being in the East End, but our family name is apparently from Wicklow, Ireland, from the 12th century. So I’m proud of the whole lot. We should all be proud of our heritage and of our family tree… helps if you don’t have too many murderers in it.
CT: Do you use Cockney rhyming slang in your day-to-day life?
JC: Yeah, sometimes. It’s not massively used anymore, but there’s lots of things you still incorporate in your everyday language. We say ‘Come on, let’s have a butchers’… which is butcher’s hook… have a look at something. But, generally, I don’t think Cockney rhyming slang is used too much today.
The thing we use in our shop more than anything, purely because my great-grandfather was a master butcher, is butcher’s slang – back slang. We use that a lot. That was mainly used many, many years ago, when the butcher would tell his boy or girl serving to get rid of certain cuts of meat first. They couldn’t just say ‘Make sure you give this lady the old chicken first’, otherwise she’d say ‘You can shove that chicken up your bum.’ So they would say it in a backwards lingo that the customer wouldn’t understand.
CT: Is back slang still commonly spoken in the East End?
JC: You may hear a bit of it in Smithfield, in the meat market, but it’s nowhere near as common as it was. But all my family – my generation, the generation before, and the generation before that – have always used it, even as kids. It was almost a second language. We still use it today, often, and my daughter uses it – especially when we’re away on holiday or out anywhere so that people don’t understand what you’re saying!
CT: Do you have any favourite phrases in back slang?
JC: Yes, I do – but not any that I’m going to repeat here!
CT: Is it a trade secret?
JC: No, not a secret – just very, very rude stuff! Back slang isn’t all completely backwards, because some things you can’t say backwards. I suppose it is fairly complicated, but if you’re young and you pick it up, you never lose it.
CT: How do people react in your shop if you speak to them in rhyming or back slang?
JC: If you speak to ordinary people in rhyming slang, and certainly foreigners, they don’t have a bloody clue what you’re talking about. So if you said ‘Let’s all go up the apples and pears’ or even ‘Go up the apples’ they wouldn’t have a clue, would they?
Although years ago we had a New Yorker, with a proper broad New York accent, who worked for a firm that always came in for pies. And they would always make him order the pies. In the end, he got so good at it, he’d order something and then say ‘Thanks, geeze’. He really, really got into it. It’s these little things in a language that if you learnt from a book or a teacher, you’d never, ever get. These are the things that are learnt from communities.
CT: Do you think Cockney is dying out?
JC: Well, it’s a language. Languages are a living thing, they’re being used all the time. Every year, the Oxford Dictionary has words go out and puts new words in. Language is growing and moving all the time, it’s living. It’s a part of the community. The language is like this community – old shops shut all the time, and new ones open. The old bakery shut last year, and now there’s a New York deli there. Is it better or worse than it was? It’s different. It’s evolving all the time, the same as language is. I love languages so much – I find them so phenomenally interesting.
CT: You taught your daughter back slang – do you think it’s important that people preserve these languages by teaching them to their children?
JC: You don’t have to teach most kids a language. They pick it up if you speak it around them, and I think you should do that. Even if my daughter is on the phone with me and she’s around people, she’ll speak to me in back slang over the phone so no one can understand what we’re saying.
CT: You mentioned elements of language that can only be learnt in communities. Do you think having a local community like there is in this area, and around your shop, keeps back slang alive?
JC: Oh, certainly. What makes it more difficult is when your old, original communities start to disperse and thin out. That makes it very difficult to keep the old things like traditions and languages in place. We should be aware of all these things, and proud of our heritage.
Back slang’s background
The first written reference to back slang appears in London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851 by Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew. It’s recorded as a language used by butchers and costermongers (greengrocers) to communicate between themselves without being understood by customers.
Publisher John Camden Hotten compiled A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1859, which contains useful back slang vocabulary such as elrig (girl), esclop (police), kennurd (drunk) and dabheno (a bad one, often referring to a poor market day).
Most people today know at least one word in back slang: yob, a derogatory term for a youth, is actually back slang for ‘boy’.
This article is part of our Explore Your World Through Language campaign. If you enjoyed this exploration of the wonders of words, why not sink your teeth into these great pieces: