London Explained – ‘Cockney’…

The bell tower of St Mary-le-Bow. PICTURE: lonpicman (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0))

A new regular section in which we explain some of the city’s language. First up, we’re taking a quick look at the word ‘Cockney’.

The word, which has been used as far back as the Middle Ages to describe a ‘cock’s egg’ or weird egg, was apparently once used to refer to “weak” urbanite men (as opposed to the tougher men of the country).

But in more recent times, it was used to refer to someone born within hearing distance of the ‘Bow bells’ – the bells of the church of St Mary-le-Bow in the City.

This meant it came to be particularly associated with people from the city’s East End (although the bells can apparently be heard for at least a couple of miles in any direction – legend has Dick Whittington apparently hearing them calling to him more than four miles away in Highgate).

As well as referring to the people, the word is also used for the distinctive dialect, known as Cockney Rhyming slang, of those who lived in the area.

Interestingly, thanks to World War II preparations, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow were silent from 13th June, 1940, and, following their destruction in an air-raid the following year, were not replaced until 1961. This has led some to conclude that because no bells were rung during this 21 year period, no Cockneys were born then.

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