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COCKNEY [Used with and without an initial capital]. A working-class Londoner, especially in the East End, and English as used by such a Londoner. Though often stigmatized as a gutter DIALECT, Cockney is a major element in the English of LONDON, the core of a diverse variety spoken by some 7m people in the Greater London area.

Origins of the term

In Langland's Piers Plowman (1362), cokeneyes means eggs, apparently small and misshapen, as if laid by a cock. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c.1386), the Reeve uses cokenay in the sense of a mother's darling or milksop. By the early 16c, country people had extended the term to people brought up in cities and ignorant of real life: ‘This cokneys and tytyllynges [delicati pueri] may abide no sorrow when they come to age. In this great citees as London, York the children be so nycely and wantonly brought up that comonly they can little good’ ( Robert Whitinton, Vulgaria, 1520). By the early 17c, however, this expression of disdain for the city-bred young had narrowed to one place and one person: the ‘Bow-bell Cockney’ (1600) and ‘our Cockney of London’ (1611). In 1617, two definitions were written for the term in this sense:
A Cockney or Cockny, applied only to one borne within the sound of Bow-bell, that is, within the City of London, which tearme came first out of this tale: That a Cittizens sonne riding with his father into the Country asked, when he heard a horse neigh, what the horse did his father answered, the horse doth neigh; riding farther he heard a cocke crow, and said doth the cocke neigh too? and therefore Cockney or Cocknie, by inuersion thus: incock, q. incoctus i. raw or vnripe in Country-mens affaires ( John Minsheu , Ductor in linguas: The guide into tongues).

Londiners, and all within the sound of Bowbell, are in reproch called Cocknies ( Fynes Moryson , An Itinerary).
A succession of stigmas has therefore been associated with the name from the start: odd egg, milksop, young city slicker, and street-wise Londoner. At the same time, the reference of Cockney moved from something new or young (an egg, a child) to a spoiled adolescent (city youth) to anyone of any age born in London within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church. With ‘our Cockney of London’, the other usages were forgotten and a stereotype developed of a breed with no interest in life beyond the capital: ‘That Synods Geography was as ridiculous as a Cockneys (to whom all is Barbary beyond Brainford; and Christendome endeth at Greenwitch)’ ( Richard Whitlock, Zootomia, or observations on the present manners of the English, 1654).

Eighteenth-century Cockney

Comments on the usage of London Cockneys date from the 18c. After setting out the faults of the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh, the London elocutionist John Walker noted in 1791: ‘There are dialects peculiar to Cornwall, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and every distant county in England; but as a consideration of these would lead to a detail too minute for the present occasion, I shall conclude these remarks with a few observations on the peculiarities of my countrymen, the Cockneys; who, as they are the models of pronunciation to the distant provinces, ought to be the more scrupulously correct’ (A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language).

Walker lists four faults: (1) A habit among Londoners of ‘the lowest order’ of pronouncing words like fists, posts, wastes as two syllables, as if there were an e between the t and the s. (2) Not confined to the lowest order, ‘the pronunciation of v for w, and more frequently of w for v’ (‘vine and weal’ for wine and veal), which he called ‘a blemish of the first magnitude’. (3) Not pronouncing h after w, so that ‘we do not find the least distinction between while and wile, whet and wet, where and were, &c.’ (4) ‘Sinking the h at the beginning of words where it ought to be sounded, and of sounding it, either where it is not seen, or where it ought to be sunk. Thus we not infrequently hear, especially among children, heart pronounced art, and arm, harm.’ He also notes that words like humour are pronounced as if written ‘yewmour’. Even so, he concludes: ‘Thus I have endeavoured to correct some of the more glaring errors of my countrymen, who, with all their faults, are still upon the whole the best pronouncers of the English language.’

Nineteenth-century Cockney

Cockney and London usage seem to have been synonymous for Walker. He makes no distinction between refined and unrefined usage in the capital apart from his reference to the lowest social order. In the 19c, however, the term was limited to those whose usage never served as a model for anyone. By the time of SHAW'S play Pygmalion (1913), Cockney was generally regarded as debased language (‘gutter Cockney’) and Shaw's flower-girl Eliza Doolittle received far more help from the phonetician Henry Higgins than Walker felt his fellows needed. The speech of all classes of Londoner has changed greatly since Walker's time. In the process, one of his ‘faults’ has by and large become a feature of the standard spoken English of England: the /w/ in such pairs as while/wile: see W and WH-SOUND. Of the others, one remains a stigma, one has only recently disappeared, and the third vanished long ago but remains controversial. The dropping of aitches is widespread beyond Cockneydom and is generally considered substandard. There is, however, uncertainty about the extent to which aitches are sounded where they ‘ought to be sunk’: see AITCH, H. Pronunciations like ‘fistiz’ for fists continued into the 20c, but appear to have died out in the 1950s. The exchange of v and w has been the most controversial of Walker's SHIBBOLETHS, commentators who deny that it ever occurred sometimes blaming DICKENS for inventing it. He uses it copiously in The Pickwick Papers (1837), as part of the dialect of Samuel Weller, whose father calls him ‘ Samivel Veller’:
‘I had a reg'lar new fit o' clothes that mornin', gen'l'men of the jury,’ said Sam, ‘and that was a wery partickler and uncommon circumstance vith me in those days. … If they wos a pair o' patent double million magnifyin' gas microscopes of hextra power, p'raps I might be able to see through a flight o' stairs and a deal door; but bein' only eyes, you see, my wision's limited’ (ch. 34).
Walker, however, provides the proof that Sam's style of speech existed well before Dickens created him, but it appears to have been in decline when Dickens made it a literary STEREOTYPE, and had virtually disappeared by the 1870s, as noted by Shaw in an appendix to Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900):
When I came to London in 1876, the Sam Weller dialect had passed away so completely that I should have given it up as a literary fiction if I had not discovered it surviving in a Middlesex village, and heard of it from an Essex one. Some time in the eighties the late Alexander Tuer called attention in the Pall Mall Gazette to several peculiarities of modern cockney, and to the obsolescence of the Dickens dialect that was still being copied from book to book by authors who never dreamt of using their ears, much less of training them to listen.

Twentieth-century Cockney

Currently, the term Cockney is applied to USAGE in the London area in a fairly free and easy way. There are, however, two broad perceptions: (1) That it is a range of usage centred on the East End of London, with fringe forms that shade out into the counties around the city, especially among the young. Here, the term refers to a widely diffused variety of working-class speech in south-eastern England. (2) That, in sociolinguistic terms, it is the BASILECT in a range of usages in which STANDARD ENGLISH with an RP accent is the ACROLECT. Here, Cockney is the core of working-class London speech and is not properly applied to the MESOLECTS of the area, which may however have Cockney-like features. Whichever viewpoint is chosen, degrees of Cockneyhood are commonly perceived in the London area, according to such factors as class, social aspirations, locality, and education. The association with Bow bells is sometimes mentioned by inner Londoners with nostalgia. Few babies are now born near the Church of St Mary-le-Bow, and many who have in the past been born within the sound of its bells could never, because of their social class, have been Cockneys, except ironically. Cockney has long been associated with the East End and the inner suburbs of east London: Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Bow, Hackney, Limehouse, Mile End, Old Ford, Poplar, Shoreditch, Stepney, Wapping, and Whitechapel. Core Cockney is distinct from working-class usage south of the Thames in Bermondsey, Southwark, and Walworth. Like many varieties of English, it is most easily identified through its extreme forms. Like other stigmatized urban dialects, such as BROOKLYN (New York), GLASGOW, and SCOUSE (Liverpool), it is vigorous and influential, but generally viewed by both its speakers and outsiders as a liability for the upwardly mobile.


The following features contribute to core Cockney speech: (1) F and V. Cockney differs from all other varieties of English in having /f/ for /ɵ/, as in ‘firty fahsn’ thirty thousand. This is matched medially by /v/ for /ð/, as in ‘bovver’ bother, ‘muvver’ mother. Initially, the sound is closer to /ð/ in such words as this, these, but pronunciations like ‘vis’ and ‘vese’ can be heard. Everything, nothing, something are pronounced ‘evryfink’, ‘nuffink’, ‘sumfink’. A shibboleth for the f/v usage is Firty fahsn fevvers on a frush's froat. (2) H-dropping. Like many varieties of English in England, Cockney has no initial /h/ in words like house (Nobody lives in them ouses now), but sometimes adds /h/ for emphasis or as hypercorrection before initial vowels, as with ‘hever’ for ever (Did you hever see the like?). (3) Diphthongs. Cockney is well known for the elongation of its vowel sounds, often represented in print by several vowels together, as in Shaw's ‘daownt’ for don't. Distinctive diphthongs include /əi/ for RP /iː/ in beet/seat, /ai/ for RP /eɪ/ in fate/great, /ɒɪ/ for RP /aɪ/ in high/why. Conversely, the monophthong /a/ serves where RP has the diphthong /aʊ/ in about ‘abaht’, thousand ‘fahsn’. (4) The glottal stop. Use of the GLOTTAL STOP for medial and final /t/, /kt/, and /k/, as in but, butter, hectic, technical (‘tetnical’), and a glottalized /tʃ/, as in actually (‘atshelly’). (5) Linking R. There is no postvocalic /r/ in Cockney, which like RP is non-rhotic: ‘cah’ for car, ‘cahd’ for card. Cockney shares the linking r used generally in south-east England, as in ‘draw/r/ing room’ for drawing room, ‘Shah/r of Persia’ for Shah of Persia: see LINKING R. (6) Syllable-final /l/ is vocalized as /w/: ‘tewwim’ for tell him: see L-SOUNDS.

Syntax and usage

(1) The GRAMMAR of Cockney is by and large ‘general nonstandard’, with such usages as double negation (There aint nuffink like it There is nothing like it) and done and seen for did and saw (I done it yesterday, I just seen er). (2) Question tags are widely used to invite agreement or establish one's position: I'm elpin you now, inneye? I am helping you now, ain't I?—although I may not have helped you before or wanted in fact to help you at all; Well, e knew all abaht it, dinnee? Well, he knew all about it, didn't he?—Because he knew all about it, it's not surprising he did what he did. (3) The prepositions to and at are frequently dropped in relation to places: I'm goin down the pub I'm going down to the pub, He's round is mate's He is round at his friend's house, They're over me mum's They're over at my mother's.

Literary and stage Cockney

Since the time of Dickens, Cockney DIALOGUE has often been included in otherwise standard texts. A fairly consistent sub-orthography has developed for it, such as abaht about, Gawd God, larf laugh, muvver mother, orful awful, orl all, with the apostrophe used to mark absent h as in ʾabit and absent g, signalling the pronunciation of -ing as syllabic /n/, as in cuttinʾ and shoutinʾ. Writers generally use just enough for flavour, along with typical expressions and a cocky, cheeky, or cheerful style, as in Rudyard Kipling's The 'Eathen (1892):The ʾeathen in ʾis blindness bows down to wood an' stone;
ʾE don't obey no orders unless they is ʾis own;
ʾE keeps ʾis side-arms awful: ʾe leaves ʾem all about,
An' then comes up the Regiment anʾ pokes the ʾeathen out.
Shaw employs a parallel stage Cockney for a similar burst of chauvinism in Captain Brassbound's Conversion:
It gows agin us as Hinglishmen to see these bloomin furriners settin ap their Castoms Ahses and spheres o hinfluence and sich lawk hall owver Arfricar. Daownt Harfricar belong as much to huz as to them? thets wot we sy (Act ɪ).
Allnutt, the mechanic in C. S. Forester's The African Queen (1935: ch. 2) is less orthographically assertive, but remains unequivocally a working-class Londoner:‘Why not?’
‘Rapids, miss. Rocks an' cataracts an'
gorges. You 'aven't been there, miss.
I'ave. There's a nundred miles of rapids
down there. Why, the river's got a
different nime where it comes out in the
Lake to what it's called up ʾere. It's the
Bora down there. That just shows you.
No one knew they was the same river
until that chap Spengler—’
Literary approaches to Cockney have generally been the work of middle-class non-Cockneys. Their conventions have, however, been both used and queried by Cockneys writing about their own speech, as in Barltrop and Wolveridge's The Muvver Tongue (1980):
But the short ou of ‘out’ and ‘about’ is the chronically misrepresented Cockney vowel. For a hundred years there has been a convention of writing it as ‘ah’. Shaw put ‘baw ya flahr orf a pore gel’ into Eliza Doolittle's mouth: ‘rahnd the ahses’ is the classic way of conveying East London speech. It is painfully wide of the mark. Whatever a Cockney's ‘out’ may be thought to sound like, it is not ‘art’—which is what ‘aht’ would make it. The sound is a lengthened short u. It might be written ‘uht’, the u as in ‘cut’ but stretched out; more precisely, it is ‘uh-ert’. The phonetic version of a Cockney's ‘buy a flower off a poor girl’ would be ‘baheeya fluh-er orf a pore gel’. Practically any Cockney does this when he talks, but in a street vendor's chant it would become a flourish and almost musical.

Tone and rhetoric

A striking aspect of Cockney, especially when compared with RP, is its effusive range of tone and emotion. Barltrop and Wolveridge comment:
The East Londoner likes his utterances to be attention-catching whether they are plaintive, indignant, gloomy or humorous … Nagging, anecdote, giving opinions and even greeting a friend in the street are done with the same mobility of voice, to squeeze the utmost meaning out of them, and it is noticeable in ordinary conversation.

The devices of vigorous delivery include a wide range of tones, emphatic loudness, strong facial expression, and vigorous body language. There is in particular pitch prominence on content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) and their vowels are often stretched, as in You ought to ave SEEEEN it—it was ever so GOOOOD. In tandem, Cockneys are generally more uninhibited socially (laughing loudly, complaining vigorously) than middleclass Londoners, a feature which may have been influenced by Gypsies, Jews, and Irish in the East End.


Probably the best-known and most-discussed usage is Cockney RHYMING SLANG, as in Would you Adam and Eve it? Would you believe it?, and They had a bit of a bull and a cow a row. It may have originated in thieves' CANT, but its history is unclear and there is little evidence that it was ever widespread or extensive enough to be a code in its own right. If it was once so used by traders, entertainers, thieves, and others, the secret has been well kept. Such word-play was a fashionable game in the West End of London in the 1930s, and during and after the Second World War was disseminated by the media. Many of its usages have been spread by television: Brahms and Liszt pissed, drunk, in the 1970s TV comedy series Steptoe and Son, which also used berk, a clipping of Berkeley/Berkshire Hunt a cunt (whose first OED citation is 1936). Several rhymes for the same word may compete: tea is both Rosy Lea and you and me. Bristol Cities (titties) may have been media-inspired, traditional Cockney being Manchester Cities or threepenny bits (tits). Such slang has contributed to informal BrE at large such usages as cobblers, as an expression of scepticism from cobblers' awls balls, testicles, butchers from butcher's hook a look, Jimmy Riddle a piddle (an act of urinating), rabbit on for talking all the time, from rabbit and pork talk, raspberry for a derisive blowing sound with the lips (apparently from raspberry tart fart).

Cockney SLANG includes: (1) Words from ROMANI: chavvy a child, mush a mate, buddy, put the mockers on to jinx. (2) Words from YIDDISH: gezumph/gazump to swindle, schemozzle a disturbance, schlemiel a fool. (3) MINCED OATHS and EUPHEMISMS, especially relating to God: Blimey God blind me, Cor God, as in Cor stone the crows, Gordon Bennett (the name of an early 20c car-racing promoter) God. (4) Forces slang picked up in Asia: ackers money (probably from ARABIC fakka small change), bint a girl (Arabic), cushy soft, easy, as in a cushy billet an easy job (from Hindi khush pleasure), dekko a look (from the HINDI imperative dekho look); shufti a look (Arabic), doolally (mad, from Deolali, a town in India where a British Forces mental hospital was located). (5) ABBREVIATIONS, sometimes with -o added (compare AusE slang): aggro aggravation (= aggression), rarzo a red nose (short for raspberry). (6) BACKSLANG: yob a boy, sometimes in the form yobbo. (7) Usage with run-together phrases that sound like, and are often written as, single words: Gawdelpus God help us, Geddoudovit Get out of it, Gorblimey originally ‘God blind me’, Wotcha/Wotcher What cheer (a once widespread greeting). Because of wartime contacts, National Service after the Second World War, and the media, many of these expressions are understood and often used throughout Britain.

Social issues

Core Cockney, fringe Cockney, and their neighbouring forms make up the most prominent and widely spoken urban dialect in Britain. It rests on an ancient working-class tradition and has had considerable media influence on BrE usage at large, especially in the London-based tabloid newspapers, and in radio and TV popular entertainment, such as the current BBC soap opera EastEnders. It remains, however, a stigmatized variety that attracts little academic attention and is often regarded as quaint and amusing. Barltrop and Wolveridge note:
We wanted to write for Cockneys as much as about them. The language is constantly shown as picturesque or comic, and almost invariably as inferior; it is taken for granted as coming from a people who do not know any better. We hope to persuade Cockneys as well as others that it is more than the equal of any other form of speech. … The Cockney does not have to define class—it defines him. While East Londoners are defined by the social system as are all other working people, they are resentful of it in a resigned sort of way and strongly conscious of ‘Them and Us’. … Thus, speaking well—‘talking posh’—does not make a great impression; it smacks of being the enemy's language.The Cockneys share such sentiments with users of other working-class varieties that grew up with the Industrial Revolution. Like speakers of Scouse and Gutter Glasgow, they are embattled and often thumb a linguistic nose at the rest of the world. Cockneys have faced an extra stigma because they have often been seen as letting London down. Paradoxically, they are at the same time invoked with affection as a key element in defining the city. See ESTUARY ENGLISH, NEW ORLEANS.

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Cockneyblini, cine, Finney, finny, Ginny, guinea, hinny, mini, Minnie, ninny, pinny, Pliny, shinny, skinny, spinney, tinny, whinny •kidney, Sidney, Sydney •chimney •jitney, Whitney •Disney •aborigine, polygeny, polygyny •androgyny, homogeny, misogyny, progeny •Gemininiminy-piminy, Rimini •dominie, hominy, Melpomene •ignominy • Panini • larceny • telecine •satiny • destiny • mountainy •mutiny, scrutiny •briny, Heine, liny, piny, shiny, spiny, tiny, whiny •sunshiny •Bonnie, bonny, Connie, johnny, Lonnie, Ronnie, Suwannee •Rodney •Cockney, Procne •Romney • Novotný • Grozny •brawny, corny, horny, lawny, mulligatawny, scrawny, tawny, thorny •Orkney • Courtney •brownie, browny, downy, townie

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cock·ney / ˈkäknē/ • n. (pl. -neys) a native of East London. ∎  the dialect or accent typical of such people. • adj. of or characteristic of cockneys or their dialect or accent.

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Cockney a native of East London, traditionally one born within hearing of Bow Bells; the dialect or accent typical of such a person (See also mockney).

The word is recorded from late Middle English, denoting a pampered child; the origin is uncertain, but it is apparently not the same word as Middle English cokeney ‘cock's egg’, denoting a small misshapen egg (probably from cock + obsolete ey ‘egg’). A later sense was ‘a town-dweller regarded as affected or puny’, from which the current sense arose in the early 17th century.

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116. Cockney

  1. Bow Bells famous bell in East End of London; only one who is born within the bells sound is a true Cockney. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 347]
  2. Doolittle, Eliza Cockney girl taught by professor to imitate aristocracy. [Br. Lit.: Pygmalion ]
  3. Weller, Tony and Samuel father and son, coachman and bootblack, with colorful lingo. [Br. Lit.: Dickens Pickwick Papers ]
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cockney †hen's egg (perh. small or mis-shapen, ‘cock's egg’); †pampered child XIV; †townsman, as a type of effeminacy; one born in the city of London XVI. ME. cokeney, -ay, prob. f. cokene, g. pl. of cok COCK 1 + ey, ay (OE. ǣġ) egg.