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The term Cockney has geographical, social and linguistic associations. Traditionally, it refers to people born within a certain area of London, that is covered by "the sound of Bow bells". It is often used to refer to working-class Londoners in the East End. Linguistically, it can refer to the accent and form of English spoken by this group.


A costume associated with Cockneys is that of the pearly King (or pearly Queen) worn by London costermongers who sew thousands of pearl buttons onto their clothing in elaborate and creative patterns.

The earliest recorded use of the term is 1362 in The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman (Passus VI) by William Langland and it is used to mean a small, misshapen egg, from Middle English coken (of cocks) and ey (egg) so literally "a cock's egg".[1] In "The Reeve's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1386) it appears as "cokenay",[2] and the meaning is "a child tenderly brought up, an effeminate fellow, a milksop".[1][3][4] By 1521 it was in use by country people as a derogatory reference for the effeminate town-dwellers.[1][5] The term was used to describe those born within earshot of the Bow Bells in 1600, when Samuel Rowlands, in his satire The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine, referred to "a Bowe-bell Cockney".[6] A contemporary, the traveller and writer Fynes Moryson stated in his work An Itinerary that "Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys."[7] John Minsheu (or Minshew) was the first lexicographer to define the word in this sense, in his Ductor in Linguas (1617), where he referred to "A Cockney or a Cocksie, applied only to one born within the sound of Bow bell, that is in the City of London".[8] However, the etymologies he proffered ("cock" and "neigh", or from Latin incoctus, raw) were incorrect. Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) derives the term from the following story:

A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called Neighing, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to shew he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the Cock Neighs?[9][10]

Given the earlier meanings above, this story is probably apocryphal.


An alternative derivation is from the word Cockaigne, a term for a mythical luxurious country, first recorded in 1305.[11] This was then used humorously to refer to London, and over time had a number of spellings: Cocagne, Cockayne, Cocknay and Cockney. The latter two spellings could be used to refer to both pampered children and residents of London, as to pamper or spoil a child was "to cocker" him.[12]

Cockney area[edit]

The region in which "Cockneys" are thought to reside is not clearly defined. A common view is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells.[13] However, the church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Although the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in the Blitz, they had fallen silent on 13 June 1940 as part of the British anti-invasion preparations of World War II. Before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when, by the "within earshot" definition, no "Bow-bell" Cockneys could be born.[14] 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 any longer,[15] although the Royal London Hospital, Guy's Hospital and St Thomas' Hospital are within the defined area covered by the sound of the Bow Bells. The closest maternity units were the City of London Maternity Hospital, Finsbury Square, which was bombed out during the World War II blitz, and St Bartholomew's Hospital (or Barts), whose maternity department closed in the late 1980s. The East London Maternity Hospital in Stepney, which was 2.5 miles from St Mary-le-Bow, was in use from 1884 to 1968. There is a maternity unit still in use at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. Home births were very common until the late 1960s.

A study was carried out by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard,[16] and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as Highgate (5 miles).[17] The association with Cockney and the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church. Thus while all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders.

The traditional core districts of the East End are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Clerkenwell, Aldgate, Shoreditch, Millwall, Hackney, Hoxton, Bow and Mile End. "The Borough" to the south of Waterloo, London and Tower Bridge were also considered Cockney before redevelopment all but extinguished the local working-class areas, and now Bermondsey is the only Cockney area south of the River Thames, although Pearly Kings and Queens can be found as far out as Peckham and Penge. The area north of the Thames gradually expanded to include East Ham, Stratford, West Ham, Plaistow, Forest Gate, Walthamstow, Leyton, Leytonstone and Barking and Dagenham as more land was built upon.

Famous Cockneys[edit]

Migration and evolution[edit]

Recent linguistic research suggests that today, certain elements of Cockney English are declining in usage within the East End of London and the accent has migrated to Outer London and the Home Counties: in London's East End, some traditional features of Cockney have been displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety popular among young Londoners (sometimes referred to as "Jafaican"), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent.[18] Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalization of the dark L (and other features of Cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage.

An influential July 2010 report by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety, predicted that the Cockney accent will disappear from London's streets within 30 years.[18] The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said the accent, which has been around for more than 500 years, is being replaced in London by a new hybrid language. "Cockney in the East End is now transforming itself into Multicultural London English, a new, melting-pot mixture of all those people living here who learnt English as a second language", Prof Kerswill said.[18]

Conversely, migration of Cockney speakers has led to migration of the dialect. In Essex, planned towns that grew from post-war migration out of London (e.g. Basildon and Harlow) often have a strong Cockney influence on local speech. However this is, except where least mixed, difficult to discern because of common features: linguistic historian and researcher of early dialects Alexander John Ellis in 1890 stated that Cockney developed owing to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech.[19] In recent years the dialect has moved out of inner-city London towards the outskirts of Greater London. Today Cockney-speaking areas include parts of Dagenham, Barking, Billericay, Brentwood, Romford, Chigwell, Loughton, Harlow, Tottenham, Enfield, Brimsdown, Basildon, Thurrock, Cheshunt, Bexley, Sidcup, Walling, Eltham and Islington among others [20][21]

Cockney speech [edit]

Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and occasionally use rhyming slang. The Survey of English Dialects took a recording from a long-time resident of Hackney, and the BBC made another recording in 1999 which showed how the accent had changed.[22][23]

John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1859, makes reference to "their use of a peculiar slang language" when describing the costermongers of London's East End. In terms of other slang, there are also several borrowings from Yiddish, including kosher (originally Hebrew, via Yiddish, meaning legitimate) and stumm (/ʃtʊm/ originally German, via Yiddish, meaning quiet),[24] as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal),[25] and cushty (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake Cockney accent is sometimes called "Mockney".

Typical features[edit]

Most of the features mentioned above have, in recent years, partly spread into more general south-eastern speech, giving the accent called Estuary English; an Estuary speaker will use some but not all of the Cockney sounds.[62][63][64]

Changing attitudes towards Cockney English[edit]

The Cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. In 1909 these attitudes even received an official recognition thanks to the report of The Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools issued by the London County Council, where it is stated that "[...] the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire".[65] On the other hand, however, there started rising at the same time cries in defence of Cockney as, for example the following one: "The London dialect is really, especially on the South side of the Thames, a perfectly legitimate and responsible child of the old kentish tongue [...] the dialect of London North of the Thames has been shown to be one of the many varieties of the Midland or Mercian dialect, flavoured by the East Anglian variety of the same speech [...]".[65] Since then, the Cockney accent has been more accepted as an alternative form of the English Language rather than an "inferior" one; in the 1950s the only accent to be heard on the BBC (except in entertainment programmes such as Sooty) was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including Cockney or ones heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC.[66] In a survey of 2000 people conducted by Coolbrands in autumn 2008, Cockney was voted equal fourth coolest accent in Britain with 7% of the votes, while The Queen's English was considered the coolest, with 20% of the votes.[67] Brummie was voted least popular, receiving just 2%.

Spread of Cockney English[edit]

Studies have indicated that the heavy use of South East English accents on television and radio may be the cause of the spread of Cockney English since the 1960s.[68][69][70][71] Cockney is more and more influential and some claim that in the future many features of the accent may become standard.[72]


Studies have indicated that working-class adolescents in areas such as Glasgow have begun to use certain aspects of Cockney and other Anglicisms in their speech,[73] infiltrating the traditional Glasgow patter.[74] For example, TH-fronting is commonly found, and typical Scottish features such as the postvocalic /r/ are reduced.[75] Research suggests the use of English speech characteristics is likely to be a result of the influence of London and South East England accents featuring heavily on television.[68][69][70][71] However, such claims have been criticised.[76]


Certain features of Cockney - Th-fronting, L-vocalization, T-glottalization, and the fronting of the GOAT and GOOSE vowels - have spread across the south-east of England and, to a lesser extent, to other areas of Britain.[77] However, Clive Upton has noted that these features have occurred independently in some other dialects, such as TH-fronting in Yorkshire and L-vocalisation in parts of Scotland.[78]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. 1989. Retrieved 2009-03-24. [dead link]
  2. ^ Cumberledge, Geoffrey. F. N. Robinson, ed. The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford University Press. p. 70. 
  3. ^ Cumberledge, Geoffrey. F. N. Robinson, ed. The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford University Press. p. 1063. 
  4. ^ Hotten, John Camden (1859). "Cockney". A dictionary of modern slang, cant and vulgar words. p. 22.  Cockney: a native of London. An ancient nickname implying effeminacy, used by the oldest English writers, and derived from the imaginary fool's paradise, or lubberland, Cockaygne.
  5. ^ This cokneys and tytyllynges..[delicati pueri] may abide no sorrow when they come to age..In this great cytees as London, York, Perusy and such..the children be so nycely and wantonly brought up..that commonly they can little good (Robert Whittington, Vulgaria (1520).)
  6. ^ "Born within the sound of Bow Bells". Retrieved 2013-01-18.  a more modern literal interpretation of the title is "A blood-letting of humour from the jugular"
  7. ^ "Bow Bells". Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ "Cockney (Grose 1811 Dictionary)". Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  10. ^ Grose, Francis. "A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue". Project Gutenberg e-text. Retrieved 2009-03-24. 
  11. ^ Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. 2009. 
  12. ^ " ...I shall explain myself more particularly; only laying down this as a general and certain observation for the women to consider, viz. that most children's constitutions are spoiled, or at least harmed, by cockering and tenderness." Locke, John (1695). Some thoughts concerning education (Third ed.). p. 7. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ J. Swinnerton, The London Companion (Robson, 2004), p. 21.
  15. ^ Wright (1980:11)
  16. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  17. ^ "Home". St Mary-le-Bow. Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  18. ^ a b c "Cockney to disappear from London 'within 30 years'". 1 July 2010. Retrieved 1 October 2010. 
  19. ^ Ellis (1890:35, 57, 58)
  20. ^ Fogarty, Philippa (6 June 2008). "Asia-Pacific | Recognition at last for Japan's Ainu". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  21. ^ October entry[dead link]
  22. ^ British Library (10 March 2009). "Survey of English Dialects, Hackney, London". Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  23. ^ British Library (10 March 2009). "British Library Archival Sound Recordings". Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  24. ^ "Definition of shtumm". 14 September 2007. Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  25. ^ "money slang history, words, expressions and money slang meanings, london cockney money slang words meanings expressions". Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  26. ^ Wright (1980:133–135)
  27. ^ a b "Cockney English". Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h Wells (1982b:305)
  29. ^ a b Wright (1980:136–137)
  30. ^ Sivertsen (1960:111)
  31. ^ Hughes & Trudgill (1979:34)
  32. ^ Sivertsen (1960:109)
  33. ^ Wells (1982b:323)
  34. ^ Sivertsen (1960:124)
  35. ^ Wright & 1980 (137)
  36. ^ Wells (1982b:329)
  37. ^ "Cockney accent – main features". - Journalist blog. 31 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  38. ^ a b Robert Beard. "Linguistics 110 Linguistic Analysis: Sentences & Dialects, Lecture Number Twenty One: Regional English Dialects English Dialects of the World". Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  39. ^ Wells (1982b:322)
  40. ^ Hughes & Trudgill (1979:39–41)
  41. ^ a b Matthews (1938:78)
  42. ^ Wells (1982b:306)
  43. ^ Wells (1982b:307–308)
  44. ^ a b Wells (1982b:308, 310)
  45. ^ Wells (1982b:306–307)
  46. ^ Wells (1982b:308–310)
  47. ^ Wells (1982b:309)
  48. ^ Hughes & Trudgill (1979:35)
  49. ^ Sivertsen (1960:54)
  50. ^ Wells (1982a:129)
  51. ^ Cruttenden (2001:110)
  52. ^ Hughes & Trudgill (1938:35)
  53. ^ Matthews (1938:35)
  54. ^ a b Wells (1982b:310–311)
  55. ^ Wells (1982b:312–313)
  56. ^ Sivertsen (1960:132)
  57. ^ Wells (1982b:313–317)
  58. ^ "Phonological change in spoken English". 12 March 2007. Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  59. ^ Wright (1980:135)
  60. ^ Wright (1980:134)
  61. ^ Wright (1980:122)
  62. ^ "Rosewarne, David (1984). ''Estuary English''. Times Educational Supplement, 19 (October 1984)". 21 May 1999. Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  63. ^ "Wells, John (1994). ''Transcribing Estuary English – a discussion document''. Speech Hearing and Language: UCL Work in Progress, volume 8, 1994, pp. 259-67". Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  64. ^ "Altendorf, Ulrike (1999). ''Estuary English: is English going Cockney?'' In: Moderna Språk, XCIII, 1, 1-11" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  65. ^ a b "5" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  66. ^ "BBC English". BBC English. Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  67. ^ Irvine, Chris (September 2008). "RP still most popular accent". London: Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  68. ^ a b "Soaps may be washing out accent – BBC Scotland". BBC News. 4 March 2004. Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  69. ^ a b "'We fink, so we are from Glasgow'". Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  70. ^ a b ""Scots kids rabbitin' like Cockneys" – ''Sunday Herald''". Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  71. ^ a b [2][dead link]
  72. ^ Rogaliński, Paweł (2011). British Accents: Cockney, RP, Estuary English. p. 15. 
  73. ^ Is TV a contributory factor in accent change in adolescents?[dead link]ESRC Society Today
  74. ^ "Cockney creep puts paid to the patter – ''Evening Times''". 4 March 2004. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  75. ^ "‘Talkin' Jockney’? Variation and change in Glaswegian accent1 – Stuart-Smith, 2007, Journal of Sociolinguistics. Wiley Online Library". 17 April 2007. Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  76. ^ A Handbook of Varieties of English, Volume 1, p. 185.
  77. ^ Joanna Przedlacka, 2002. Estuary English? Frankfurt: Peter Lang
  78. ^ Upton, Clive (2012). "Modern Regional English in the British Isles". In Mugglestone, Lynda. The Oxford History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 395. 


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