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'All things Cockney' - REVIEW

Stratford sub Castle Guild - 8 November 2023

Terry Ereira spent the whole of his working life teaching children, at secondary school level, in East London. However, this has not detracted from his skill with adults, in fact it has probably added to it. An attractive semantic wit provided his presentation with fine entertainment and education.

The bells at St Mary- le-Bow church

He spoke about the origin of the word cockney, traditionally taken to mean a native of East London born within the sound of Bow Bells, meaning the Church of St Mary-le-Bow (founded in 1080 by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury) in Cheapside.

In the 16th century this area was large and quiet by modern standards, there being no mechanical noise. Sound is said to have carried five miles. This area included Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Hackney and parts of Poplar and Stepney. Nowadays it is more like two miles. It is difficult to know how Dick Whittington ever heard them from where, it is alleged, he stood when he first arrived in London – it is a spot too many miles to the North West!

Cockney culture is a rich and vibrant expression of London’s workingclass heritage. That does not mean lower class. It is a culture that celebrates humour, resilience, creativity and community. The word itself is said to be derived from the French word for sugar cake, cocaigne. It is found in the writings of Piers Plowman and Chaucer (a cock’s egg, meaning a small misshapen life, because a cock cannot produce an egg), for sugar cake which was thus described as a softie, a word which would also be used to describe a Londoner). Sugar cane had been introduced to England in the 15th century.

The church was burnt down in the Fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. There are twelve bells and we were shown a really fine short film of them ringing; they are arranged in a circle.

The cockney language is special. There is actually a useful purpose in what amounts to an alternative spoken language – if your conversation is overheard it can be difficult to understand, especially if fragmented. There is always gossip. Costers are apples, hence in a busy market costermongers are those who deal in apples. More specific than most of us thought.

Two characteristics of the language are the dropping of aitches and Ts and the reconstruction of sentences often forming a double negative e,g.‘We ain’t done nuffink wrong mister.’

We were encouraged to participate in a guessing game using both the familiar and more unfamiliar language variations e.g. Boat Race for face, Loaf of Bread for head and Barnet Fair for hair. Money slang e.g: Lady Godivas (£5), Ponies (£25) and Monkeys (£500) were all used as values for money. ‘Dosh’ and numerous other words for money are used in a non-specific sense. ‘He’s worth a bob or two’. All good fun.

An inclination for personal improvement resulted in movement away from London forming certain pockets of cockney speech (Essex, Kent and Swindon). Unlikely pronunciation occurred such as ‘nuffink’. Some of the rhyming slang has become modernized through TV and film like: to take a butchers (hook) is a look. Derby and Joan is a moan. Custard and jelly for telly and Elephant’s trunk for drunk. The cows and kisses is elephants – the missus is drunk. Much of it has been absorbed into modern colloquial spoken English, not the written.

Terry’s origin and experience has provided us with a fascinating and amusing talk resulting in much deserved applause.

Charles Villiers


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