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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Daffadown Dilly

St. Mary-le-Bow Church in London, rebuilt 1671-1680,
after the Great Fire of London in 1666, to the designs
of Christopher Wren.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anyone born within hearing distance of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in London is considered Cockney.  The term refers to working-class Londoners and the form of English spoken by this group.  This dialect is responsible for Cockney rhyming slang, a method of making a short phrase replace a word (without using the word), rendering a sentence incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the phrase.

It is thought that this subterfuge was invented by petty thieves, traders, and entertainers to communicate with each other in terms that the police or any eavesdroppers wouldn't understand, but that has pretty much been discredited  As more people used it, the policemen who grew up as boys in the area would've learned the phrases.  It is unknown how widespread the usage was, but it is no longer the language of the criminal and lowly element.

Image courtesy of Travel Guide London.

"Daffadown dilly" means "silly", which has been shortened to "daffy" which is commonly used today.  "Adam and Eve" means "believe", as in "Can you Adam and Eve it?"  Some phrases are abbreviated.  "Apples and pears" means "stairs", but typically only "apples" is used in speaking, as in "Just go up the apples and you'll find it."

Some phrases were intended as a joke:  "trouble and strife" for wife, for example. Some words have made it into today's commonly spoken English without a thought to their derivation:  "bread" from "bread and honey" to mean "money".  I, myself, have always used "brass tacks", thinking it came from the base of an upholstered piece.  Instead, I find, it means "facts".  The idea has spread to other English-speaking lands.  In Ireland, "flowers and frolics" means bollocks (nonsense, pronounced "bollicks" in Ireland).  "Corned beef" (pronounced "deif in Scotland) means "deaf".  In the U.S. we say "eighty-six" to mean "nothing" (nix).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One problem in researching the history of this dialect, is that it was primarily spoken and so there are not a lot of written instances of its use.  Most of us think of Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady, or Bert, the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins that Dick Van Dyke played when we think of a Cockney.  A true part of those performances is the unaspirated "h" sound ("aitch"), which is indicative of the Cockney dialect.

Cockney is a living language and phrases are added all the time.  Many of the new terms have to do with the latest celebrities, i.e. "Britney Spears" for "stairs".  Some follow using words or terms, such as "ace of spades" for "Aids".  "Dog and bone" is the phrase for "phone".

English speakers, like speakers of all languages, enjoy rhyming.  Cockney rhyming slang has great appeal, especially with its murky beginnings.  It makes us want to use our loafs and take another butcher's at the English language.

Note:  "loaf" = "load of bread" = "head"
                     "butcher's" = "butcher's hook" = "look"


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