That’s ‘the Hampden roar’, of course – or ‘the score’ to non-Cockneys. Don’t worry if you feel like you’ve already fallen at the first hurdle, though; given how many alternatives exist for almost every phrase in rhyming slang, you’d be just as likely to hear ‘Bobby Moore’, ‘Jude Law’, ‘Ali McGraw’ or any of a host of other variants used in its place.
That’s partly why the whole thing can often seem so confusing from a distance. Quite frankly, it is confusing – and that’s sort of the whole point.
Not from around here, are you…?
Indeed, as scholars have tended to agree for a very long time, one of the main purposes of rhyming slang is to differentiate those in the know from outsiders – so in many ways, you’re supposed to be confused. It’s the same story with pretty much any slang dialect that evolves from the streets of a particular city or locale; in a roundabout way, their very purpose is to pose a challenge to anyone not from the area.
(There has always been speculation, too, that it might’ve helped criminal gangs to stay one step ahead of law enforcement. This has certainly been true of many street dialects throughout history, such as a number of slang words and phrases coined by the Sicilian Mafia in its heyday, although in the case of Cockney rhyming slang there’s far less concrete evidence of that.)
Too popular for its own good?
For the vast majority of its speakers, rhyming slang tended to be used more as a badge of local belonging: if you could keep up with the shifting meanings and hottest new slang trends, you were probably a bona fide local and therefore likely to be more sympathetic or trustworthy to others within your social circle. In Victorian-era London, Cockneys around the Seven Dials area commonly deployed rhyming slang in this very way, and once it caught on and became somewhat fashionable, widespread usage quickly permeated into many other predominantly working class areas of the capital.
A few classic phrases, such as ‘porky pies’ (lies) or ‘tea leaf’ (thief) have even made it into relatively common usage all over the country. And, although these examples and many more besides can still be heard quite often in conversation between Cockneys of a certain vintage, their wider popularity and near-universal understanding means they’re now essentially useless as a true signifier of local provenance.
Don’t get it? Don’t worry!
That’s essentially why rhyming slang continues to evolve among current speakers to this very day, despite being spoken much less commonly now than at its Victorian peak – and why you’ll always keep hearing new and surprising local variants, even when you think you’ve got a pretty good handle on it all. (Check out this impressively extensive dictionary of rhyming slang phrases for a taster of just how many modern twists on the old format are doing the rounds at the moment!)
By the way, don’t worry if you feel like you haven’t got a clue (or indeed a ‘Scooby Doo’) what’s going on with it all, though – you certainly won’t be alone in that. In fact, the Museum of London ran a casual study on Cockney rhyming slang a few years ago, and found that some 80% of London-based respondents were utterly baffled by the vast majority of rhyming slang as well.
Written by Sam Butterworth, who is a writer and blog editor for Happy2Move.