AskDefine | Define cockney

Dictionary Definition

cockney adj
1 characteristic of Cockneys or their dialect; "cockney vowels"
2 relating to or resembling a cockney; "Cockney street urchins"


1 a native of the east end of London
2 the nonstandard dialect of natives of the east end of London

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a native or inhabitant of parts of the East End of London
  2. the accent and speech mannerisms of these people

Usage notes

  • Traditionally, applies only to those born within earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside


  1. of, or relating to these people or their accent

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

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.
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). However, the bells were silent from the outbreak of World War II until 1961. Also, as the general din in London has increased, the area in which the bells can be heard has contracted. Formerly it included the City, Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Stepney, Bethnal Green, Limehouse, Mile End, Wapping, Whitechapel, Shadwell, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Surrey Quays, and The Borough, although according to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could also be heard from as far away as Highgate. 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.


The term was used to describe those born within earshot of the Bow Bells as early as 1600, when Samuel Rowlands, in his satire The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine, referred to 'a Bowe-bell Cockney'. 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." 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 Cockny, applied only to one born within the sound of Bow bell, that is in the City of London'. However, the etymologies he gave (from 'cock' and 'neigh', or from Latin incoctus, raw) were just guesses, and the OED later authoritatively explained the term as originating from cock and egg (Middle English 'cokeney' < 'coken' + 'ey', lit. cocks' egg), meaning first a misshapen egg (1362), then a person ignorant of country ways (1521), then the senses mentioned above.
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?
An alternative derivation of the word can be found in Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: London was referred to by the Normans as the "Land of Sugar Cake" (Old French: pais de cocaigne''), an imaginary land of idleness and luxury. A humorous appellation, the word "Cocaigne" referred to all of London and its suburbs, and over time had a number of spellings: Cocagne, Cockayne, and in Middle English, Cocknay and Cockney. The latter two spellings could be used to refer to both pampered children, and residents of London, and to pamper or spoil a child was 'to cocker' him. (See, for example, John Locke, "...that most children's constitutions are either spoiled or at least harmed, by cockering and tenderness." from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693)

Cockney area

The region in which "Cockneys" reside has changed over time, and is no longer the whole of London. As mentioned in the introduction, the traditional definition is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells. However, 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 study was carried by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, 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.
Thus while all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders. The traditional core neighbourhoods of the East End are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Shoreditch, Bow, and Mile End. The area gradually expanded to include East Ham, Stratford, West Ham and Plaistow as more land was built upon.
Migration of Cockneys has also led to migration of the dialect. Ever since the building of the Becontree housing estate, the Barking & Dagenham area has spoken Cockney. As Chatham Dockyard expanded during the 18th century, large numbers of workers were relocated from the dockland areas of London, bringing with them a "Cockney" accent and vocabulary. Within a short period this famously distinguished Chatham from the neighbouring areas, including the City of Rochester, which had the traditional Kentish accent.
In Essex, towns that mostly grew up from post-war migration out of London (e.g. Basildon, Harlow and West Horndon) often have a strong Cockney influence on local speech. However, the early dialect researcher Alexander John Ellis believed that Cockney developed due to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech

Migration and Evolution

Today, certain elements of Cockney English are declining in usage within the area it is most associated with, displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety gaining popularity amongst young Londoners (sometimes referred to as "Jafaican" or "Multicultural London English"), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent. Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalization of the dark L (and other features of traditional Cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage. As cockneys have moved out of London, they have often taken their dialect with them. There may actually be more speakers of the Cockney dialect in Dagenham than in Whitechapel, even though the former is not in the traditional Cockney area.

Cockney speech

Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and frequently use Cockney rhyming slang. The Survey of English Dialects took a recording from a long-time resident of Hackney.
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 shtumm (/ʃtʊm/ originally German, via Yiddish, meaning quiet), as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal), and cushty (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake Cockney accent, as used by some actors, is sometimes called 'Mockney'.

Typical features

  • H-dropping
  • Broad /ɑː/ is used when the letter a precedes /f/, /s/, /θ/ and sometimes /nd/ (in words such as bath, path, demand, etc), which originated in London but has now spread across the south-east and into Received Pronunciation. However, there are exceptions to this rule; for example, the word maths or masculine.
  • T-glottalisation: Use of the glottal stop as an allophone of /t/ in various positions, including after a stressed syllable. /t/ may also be flapped intervocalically.
  • Glottal stops also occur, albeit less frequently for /k/ and /p/, and occasionally for mid-word consonants. For example, Richard Whiteing spelt "Hyde Park" as Hy' Par' . Like and light can be homophones. "Clapham" can be said as Cla'am.
  • Loss of dental fricatives:
    • /θ/ becomes [f] in all environments. [mæfs] "maths"
    • /ð/ becomes [v] in all environments except word-initially when it is [d]. [bɒvə] "bother," [dæɪ] "they." Sometimes, this occurs mid-word, as "Bethnall Green" can become Bednall Green.
  • Diphthong alterations:
    • /eɪ/[æɪ]: [bæɪʔ] "bait"
    • /əʊ/[æʉ]: [kʰæʉʔ] "coat"
    • /aɪ/[ɑɪ]: [bɑɪʔ] "bite"
    • /aʊ/ may be [æə]: [tʰæən] "town"
  • Other vowel differences include
    • /æ/[ɛ̝] or [ɛi]: [tʰɛ̝n] "tan"
    • /ʌ/[ɐ̟]
    • /ɔː//oː/ when in non-final position
    • /iː/[əi]: [bəiʔ] "beet"
    • /uː/[əʉ] or [ʉː]: [bʉːʔ] "boot"
  • Vocalisation of dark l, hence [mɪowɔː] for Millwall. The actual realization of a vocalized /l/ is influenced by surrounding vowels and it may be realized as [u], [o], or [ɤ].
  • Cockney has been occasionally described as replacing /r/ with /w/. For example, thwee instead of three, fwasty instead of frosty. Peter Wright, a Survey of English Dialects fieldworker, concluded that this was not a universal feature of Cockneys but that it was more common to hear this in the London area than anywhere else in Britain.
  • As with many urban dialects, Cockney is non-rhotic. A final -er is often pronounced as [ə]. Words such as car, far, park, etc. can have an open [ɑː].
  • An unstressed final -ow is pronounced [ə]. This is common to most traditional, Southern English dialects except for those in the West Country.
  • Grammatical features:
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.

Cockney characters in drama, fiction and poetry

A television advertisement for Heineken beer in the 1980s showed a Sloane woman receiving elocution lessons in Cockney, parodying My Fair Lady. In the advert, she was being taught to say "The wa'er in Majorca don' taste like wot it ough' a", but could only manage a rendition in Received Pronunciation of "The water in Mallorca doesn't taste quite how it should" (until, of course, she drank the beer).
More recently, the Geico automobile insurance company has used a gecko lizard in its television advertising campaign that speaks in a Cockney accent. The character is voiced by Jake Wood.

Famous Cockney people

Famous Cockney performances



External links

cockney in German: Cockney
cockney in Spanish: Cockney
cockney in French: Cockney
cockney in Italian: Cockney
cockney in Japanese: コックニー
cockney in Dutch: Cockney
cockney in Norwegian: Cockney
cockney in Polish: Cockney
cockney in Romanian: Cockney
cockney in Russian: Кокни
cockney in Swedish: Cockney
cockney in Chinese: 考克尼

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Acadian, Anglo-Indian, Brooklynese, Cajun, Canadian French, Everyman, French Canadian, Gullah, John Smith, Midland, Midland dialect, New England dialect, Pennsylvania Dutch, Yankee, Yorkshire, average man, bourgeois, bundle of isoglosses, class dialect, common man, commoner, dialect, dialect atlas, dialect dictionary, idiom, isogloss, linguistic atlas, linguistic community, linguistic island, little fellow, little man, local dialect, localism, patois, pleb, plebeian, proletarian, provincialism, regional accent, regionalism, roturier, speech community, subdialectbaseborn, below the salt, common, commonplace, homely, humble, low, lowborn, lowbred, lowly, mean, nonclerical, ordinary, plain, plebeian, rude, shabby-genteel, third-estate, ungenteel, vulgar
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