May 30, 2017

Words of the Month - The Brass Tacks on Rhyming Slang

        Any time you chew the fat, get down to brass tacks, or blow a raspberry, you’re using rhyming slang.  Originating probably around the 1840s in London’s East End, (or possibly Seven Dials - origins of slang are always hard to pin down), rhyming slang is based on word replacement.  The pattern usually goes like this: 1. replace the word you mean with a short phrase that rhymes with that word.  For example, if you mean feet you might say plates of meat.  2. Often the actual rhyming word begins to be dropped so that you just say plates, thus obscuring the reference still further for anyone who isn’t in the know.  3.  Occasionally the new slang word is subjected to the process again.  Instead of plates, people could say “barrels and crates,” which would then be shortened to “barrels”… “Sit down and put your barrels up!”
        The rhyming phrases are often proper nouns, with place names common in the nineteenth century, and names of figures in popular culture becoming more common in the twentieth.  Usually the rhyming phrase is quite random and unrelated to the original word, as in apples (from apples and pears) for stairs.  However, sometimes the rhyming phrase is perceived as having a logical connection or making a statement about the original word, as trouble and strife meaning wife or God forbids meaning kids.
        No one knows for sure whether rhyming slang was developed as a game, as a way to separate outsiders from the group, or as a criminal cant.  I’d guess that all three factors contributed.  At any rate, the creativity and wit of it have fascinated outsiders almost since the beginning, and popular culture has made much reference to rhyming slang, especially in the portrayal of Cockney speech.  Most interesting to me are the examples of words that originated as rhyming slang but now have become fully understood and accepted in ordinary speech (still as slang, for the most part, but not seen as dialectal).  Here are some familiar words and phrases that I hadn’t realized had their origins in rhyming slang.

Chew the fat rhymes with have a chat.

Bread is short for bread and honey, which rhymes with money.

Plonk is short for plinkety plonk, which rhymes with vin blanc, meaning cheap wine.

Get down to brass tacks - Brass tacks rhymes with facts (or at least they rhyme in the original dialect).

My dogs are tired - Dogs is short for dog’s meat, which rhymes with feet.

Blow a raspberry - Raspberry is short for raspberry tart, which rhymes with fart.

Rabbit on about nothing - Rabbit is short for rabbit and pork, which rhymes with talk (in the original dialect, anyway).

Use your loaf - Loaf is short for loaf of bread, which rhymes with head.

Put up your dukes, and duke it out! - Dukes is short for Duke of Yorks, which rhymes with forks, which is eighteenth century slang meaning hands.

        It’s very tempting to devise new rhyming slang of your own, but unfortunately, like any word-coining, it doesn’t work if no one else understands you!  What new words would you devise if you could?

[Pictures: Himbeere (Rasberry), wood block print from 1783 edition of Kräuterbuch by Adam Lonicer, first published 1557 (Image from Heinrich Heine Universität);
The First Position, or setting-to, engraving from The Modern Art of Boxing by Daniel Mendoza, 1790 (Image from Scribd).]