St. MARY-LE-BOW CHURCH, LONDON — Meeting people from all over the world and sharing traveling adventures together is something we enjoyed on our around-the-world cruise. My husband Philip and I were on an English ship that started from Southampton, so many of the passengers were British.
We often met such a couple in the hallway near our rooms. They were young, always friendly, smiling and polite. So each time, we had short conversations in passing. One afternoon as we were sitting around the ship’s pool, they came over and asked if they could join us. We were delighted as we thought they would be a nice couple to get to know better.
As much as I was enjoying them, I was having trouble understanding parts of their conversation. Although we all spoke the “King’s English,” I was constantly asking them to explain certain words they used. These strange terms automatically just flowed when they both spoke and it made it difficult to always understand their stories or jokes.
Here is a slightly exaggerated example so you will know what I mean: (see translation at the end)*
“Roger, mentioned that his trouble would like to go for a rosy as she was hanked. But first she needed to fix her boat and her barnet. He, too, need to change into his whistle and flute, so give us cock minutes. We will dog you when we are ready to meet in the Queens Lounge for high tea.”
We learned that Roger was a former “copper,” a police officer, and they were originally from the Cockney area in the East End of London. To be a true Cockney one must be born within the sounds of the church bells of “the Bows” or St. Mary-le-Bow Church, in the Cheapside section of London.
Cockney is a dialect and coded language made up of slang that rhymes. Historians think it started in the mid-19th century by local criminals, dock workers and merchants who sold goods in the market places. They would speak in code to dodge the police officers, informants and competition from rival gangs. The Pearly Kings and Queens are now a fund-raising society often associated with Cockneys as their yearly festival is held in this same church.
Pearly Kings and Queen
My confusion lasted for some time but in spite of our language differences, we became shipmate friends meeting for meals and attending many of the lectures and shows together.
In fact, our husbands went on an ATV tour of a wild game preserve while we ladies spent a heavenly day at a luxury resort, which was located on Mauritius on the Indian Ocean. For a whole day we lived the lives of the rich and famous. We were surrounded by white beaches which are among the most famous in the world. There were restaurants, shops, bars, lots of grass and trees. It was a Robin Hood day of quiet relaxation, sunning, reading and lunch served on an outdoor patio.
Later, back on the ship at dinner, we learned that during the men’s ATV tour, a zebra almost bit off one of Philip’s fingers. He was offering the hungry animal a few nibbles and the zebra took Philip’s whole hand in his mouth. He really had to tug to get his hand back in one piece. It sounded like a scary experience and he almost lost his recently tattooed finger. Roger said they had a good time in spite of Philip’s “barney rubble.” ( see word list below.)
Our little sunbathing group grew one afternoon when two other couples joined us who were from Tasmania, Australia and New Zealand. I think they heard our laughter while walking by, they stopped for a minute, and we asked them to join us. Soon they started adding their own special words and terms from their countries to our conversations. They too explained the meaning and history of their words and slang. It was so much fun with constant chatter. And we, those Americans who had a strange accent, learned a lot.
Our daily afternoons at the pool were hilarious and a joke a minute. We soon started calling ourselves the Commonwealth Club. Our American personalities blended so well with these three couples from totally different places. There were constant conversations about our lives, interests, hobbies and ideas. They were all irreplaceable and we really missed them when they left the ship. We were very happy they came into our lives even for a short time.
Our copper friend, Roger, gave me a list of some of his favorite Cockney words. I am going to share them with you for your entertainment. Maybe you will use them around your Thanksgiving dinner table this year. Here is a short list:
— copper- a police officer
— syrup of figs—a wig
— apples and pears—stairs
— trouble and strife—wife
— tea leaf—thief
— rosy lee—cup of tea
— suited and booted—dressed for a funeral or a wedding
— barnet fair—hair
— bubble bath—laugh
— Aunt Joanna—piano
— near and far—bar
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— crowded space—suitcase
— coals and coke—broke
— Bob Hope—soap
— borrow and beg—eggs
— bees and honey—money
— basin of gravy—baby
— rats and mice—dice
— have a Capt Cook—take a look
— Adam & Eve it—believe
— tables and chairs—stairs
— sausage & mash—cash
— porky pie -lie
— a pig’s ear—a beer
— baked bean—the Queen
— barney rubble—trouble
— in and out—snout
—dog and bone—phone
— hank marvin—starving
— boat race—face
— whistle and flute—suit of clothes
— Robin Hood—good
— cut and carried—married
Although we encountered many new languages on our trip, we learned that even among our English-speaking cousins there was truth to the old saying that England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
* Here is a translation of the example of cockney rhyming slang I mentioned earlier: “Roger mentioned that his wife would like to go to tea as she was starving. But first she needed to fix her face and her hair. He, too, need to change into his good clothes, so give us ten minutes. We will phone you when we are ready to meet.”