Language Dossier

British Cockneys

The term Cockney has both geographical and linguistic associations. Geographically and culturally, it often refers to working class Londoners, particularly those in the East End. Linguistically, it refers to the form of English spoken by this group. Cockneys speak a variety of English mainly characterized by the use of rhyming slang and backslang.
According to traditional definition, a "true" Cockney is someone born within earshot of the Bow Bells, i.e. the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside in the City of London (which is not itself in the East End).
The bells were silent from the outbreak of World War II until 1961.
The church of St. Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. After the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in The Blitz of World War II, and before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when by this definition no 'Bow-bell' Cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces other problems since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would be born within earshot of the bells anymore.

A traditional costume associated with Cockneys is that of the pearly King (or pearly Queen) worn by London costermongers who sewed thousands of pearl buttons onto their clothing in elaborate patterns.
A Pearly King (feminine form Pearly Queen) is a person dressed in a traditional Cockney costume covered in mother-of-pearl buttons. These costumes were treasured heirlooms, hand made and sometimes representing much of a family's material worth.
According to one account, the Pearlies derived from London costermongers who sewed pearl buttons onto their clothing. An orphan costermonger named Henry Croft collected any pearl buttons that had fallen off others' clothes and covered his clothing with them. Another story claims that in the 1880s a cargo of Japanese pearl buttons was salvaged from the River Thames after the boat carrying it foundered. One of the salvagers, Henry Croft, decorated his suit, hat and stick with pearl buttons, making him the first pearly king.
The Pearlies were originally elected by costermongers to safeguard their rights from rivals. Modern pearlies no longer have this role, but tend instead to devote their time to charitable activities. In recent times, the buttons used on new costumes for the Pearly Kings and Queens often include large numbers of imitation mother of pearl buttons, made of plastic, because real mother of pearl buttons have become much more uncommon, and much more expensive than they used to be.
The patterns used on pearly coats, which sometimes run in families, have special meanings, among them:

  • Horseshoe = Luck
  • Doves = Peace
  • Heart = Charity
  • Anchor = Hope
  • Cross = Faith
  • Wheel = Coster's barrow
  • Symbols of Playing Cards = Life is a gamble
  • Flower Pots = Costermongers
  • Donkey Carts = Costermongers

The Musicians

Three famous Cockneys in the world of music are Marc Bolan (singer and musician), Phil Collen (Def Leppard guitarist) and Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols lead vocalist and bassist), all of them born in Hackney.

The Actor

Sir Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr. (born 14 March 1933), better known by his screen name Michael Caine, was to become notable for using a regional accent, rather than the received pronunciation hitherto considered proper for film actors. Caine's working-class Cockney stood out just as The Beatles' Liverpudlian accents. This proved paradoxical, however, because Caine came into the public eye as the upper-class British army officer Gonville Bromhead VC in the 1964 film Zulu.

Cool related link:

The history of the Pearly Kings and Queens tradition