For other uses, see Cockney (disambiguation).

The term cockney has had several distinct geographical, social, and linguistic associations. Originally a pejorative term applied to all city-dwellers, it was eventually restricted to Londoners and particularly to "Bow-bell Cockneys":[1] those born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the Cheapside district of the City of London. More recently, it is variously used to refer to those in London's East End, or to all working-class Londoners generally.

Linguistically, cockney English refers to the accent or dialect of English traditionally spoken by working-class Londoners. In recent years, many aspects of cockney English have become part of general South East English speech, producing a variant known as Estuary English.


A costume associated with cockneys is that of the pearly King or 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 passus VI of William Langland's Piers Plowman, where it is used to mean "a small, misshapen egg", from Middle English coken + ey ("a cock's egg").[2] Concurrently, the mythical land of luxury Cockaigne (attested from 1305) appeared under a variety of spellingsincluding Cockayne, Cocknay, and Cockneyand became humorously associated with the English capital London.[3][4]

The present meaning of cockney comes from its use among rural Englishmen (attested in 1520) as a pejorative term for effeminate town-dwellers,[6][2] from an earlier general sense (encountered in "the Reeve's Tale" of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales c.1386) of a "cokenay" as "a child tenderly brought up" and, by extension, "an effeminate fellow" or "a milksop".[8] This may have developed from the sources above or separately, alongside such terms as "cock" and "cocker" which both have the sense of "to make a nestle-cock... or darling of", "to indulge or pamper".[9][11] By 1600, this meaning of cockney was being particularly associated with the Bow Bells area.[1][12] In 1617, the travel writer Fynes Moryson stated in his Itinerary that "Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys."[13] The same year, John Minsheu included the term in this newly restricted sense in his dictionary Ductor in Linguas.[14] The use of the term to describe all Londoners generally, however, survived into the 19th century[3] before becoming restricted to the working class and their particular accent. The term is now used loosely to describe all East Londoners, although some distinguish the areas (such as Canning Town) that were added to London in 1964.


Example of a cockney accent
Voice of Michael Caine who grew up in Southwark, London, recorded September 2010 from the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row

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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 Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow.[18] 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.[19] 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 now be born within earshot of the bells,[20] 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 would be the City of London Maternity Hospital, Finsbury Square, but this hospital 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 away Bow Bells could be heard,[21] and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard up to 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 the Highgate Archway (4.5 miles north). The association of cockneys with 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 in Cheapside in the City of London. 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, Cubitt Town, 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 and Plaistow as more land was built upon. The Becontree estate was built by the Corporation of London to house poor residents of London's East End on what was previously a rural area of Essex, and Peter Wright wrote that most of the residents identified as cockneys rather than as Essex folk.[22]

Notable people

Use in films

Migration and evolution

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.[25] Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalisation 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.[25] The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said that 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.[25]

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.[26] In recent years the dialect has moved out of inner-city London towards the outskirts of suburban London and into the Home Counties. Today cockney-speaking areas include parts of Dagenham, Barking, Billericay, Brentwood, Romford, Chigwell, Loughton, Harlow, Basildon, Thurrock, Cheshunt, Bexley, Sidcup, Welling and Eltham among others.[27]


Example of a Cockney accent
Voice of Danny Baker, recorded July 2007 from the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs

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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.[28][29]

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),[30] as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal),[31] and cushty (Kushty) (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake cockney accent is sometimes called mockney.

Typical features

Diphthongs of Cockney - part 1 (from Mott (2012:77)). Note that the second elements of these may also be a schwa [ə], or a mere lengthening of the first element [æː, ɑː].
Diphthongs of Cockney - part 2 (from Mott (2012:77))
Diphthongs of Cockney - part 3 (from Mott (2012:77))

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.[73][74][75]


The cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. In 1909 these attitudes even received 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".[76] However, at the same time cries in defence of cockney began to be heard, as in, for example: "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".[76] 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 The Sooty Show) was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including cockney or accents heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC.[77] In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by Coolbrands in the autumn of 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.[78] Brummie was voted least popular, receiving just 2%.


Studies have indicated that the heavy use of South East England accents on television and radio may be the cause of the spread of cockney English since the 1960s.[79][80][81][82] Cockney is more and more influential and some claim that in the future many features of the accent may become standard.[83]


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.[84] infiltrating the traditional Glasgow patter.[85] For example, TH-fronting is commonly found, and typical Scottish features such as the postvocalic /r/ are reduced.[86] 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.[79][80][81][82] However, such claims have been criticised.[87]


Certain features of cockney – Th-fronting, L-vocalisation, T-glottalisation, 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.[88] 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.[89]

The term Estuary English has been used to describe London pronunciations that are slightly closer to RP than cockney. The variety first came to public prominence in an article by David Rosewarne in the Times Educational Supplement in October 1984.[90] Rosewarne argued that it may eventually replace Received Pronunciation in the south-east. The phonetician John C Wells collected media references to Estuary English on a website. Writing in April 2013, Wells argued that research by Joanna Przedlacka "demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently".[91]

See also


  1. 1 2 "Born within the sound of Bow Bells". Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  2. 1 2 Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. 1989. Archived from the original on 22 June 2011. Retrieved 24 March 2009.
  3. 1 2 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.
  4. Note, however, that the earliest attestation of this particular usage provided by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1824 and consists of a tongue-in-cheek allusion to an existing notion of "Cockneydom".[5]
  5. Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. 2009.
  6. "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.[7]
  7. Whittington, Robert. Vulgaria. 1520.
  8. Cumberledge, Geoffrey. F. N. Robinson, ed. The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford University Press. p. 70 & 1063.
  9. " ...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."[10]
  10. Locke, John (1695). Some thoughts concerning education (Third ed.). p. 7.
  11. Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed. "cocker, v.1" & "cock, v.6". Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1891
  12. Rowlands, Samuel. The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine. 1600.
  13. "Bow Bells". Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  14. "A Cockney or a Cocksie, applied only to one born within the sound of Bow bell, that is in the City of London". Note, however, that his proffered etymologyfrom either "cock" and "neigh" or from the Latin incoctuswere both erroneous.[15] The humorous folk etymology which grew up around the derivation from "cock" and "neigh" was preserved by Francis Grose's 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
    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?[16][17]
  15. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 16 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-05.
  16. "Cockney (Grose 1811 Dictionary)". Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  17. Grose, Francis. "A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue". Project Gutenberg e-text. Retrieved 24 March 2009.
  19. J. Swinnerton, The London Companion (Robson, 2004), p. 21.
  20. Wright (1981:11)
  21. Oxford English Dictionary
  22. Wright (1981:146)
  23. Brian Hiatt (November 3, 2015). "Adele: Inside Her Private Life and Triumphant Return". RollingStone. Retrieved November 4, 2015.
  24. "Screening Room Special: Michael Caine" (29 October 2007). CNN. 25 June 2015.
  25. 1 2 3 "Cockney to disappear from London 'within 30 years'". 1 July 2010. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  26. Ellis (1890:35, 57, 58)
  27. 4 October entry
  28. British Library (10 March 2009). "Survey of English Dialects, Hackney, London". Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  29. British Library (10 March 2009). "British Library Archival Sound Recordings". Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  30. "Definition of shtumm". 14 September 2007. Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  31. "money slang history, words, expressions and money slang meanings, london cockney money slang words meanings expressions". Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  32. Wright (1981:133–135)
  33. 1 2 "Cockney English". Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  34. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Wells (1982b:305)
  35. 1 2 Wright (1981:136–137)
  36. Sivertsen (1960:111)
  37. Hughes & Trudgill (1979:34)
  38. Sivertsen (1960:109)
  39. Wells (1982b:323)
  40. Sivertsen (1960:124)
  41. Wright (1981:137)
  42. Wells (1982b:329)
  43. "Cockney accent – main features". - Journalist blog. 31 July 2011. Archived from the original on 9 March 2012. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  44. 1 2 Robert Beard. "Linguistics 110 Linguistic Analysis: Sentences & Dialects, Lecture Number Twenty One: Regional English Dialects English Dialects of the World". Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  45. Wells (1982b:322)
  46. Hughes & Trudgill (1979:39–41)
  47. 1 2 Matthews (1938:78)
  48. 1 2 Wells (1982b:306)
  49. Wells (1982b:307–308)
  50. 1 2 Wells (1982b:308, 310)
  51. Wells (1982b:306–307)
  52. Wells (1982b:308–310)
  53. 1 2 3 Mott (2012:77)
  54. 1 2 Wells (1982b:305 and 309)
  55. Wells (1982b:305–306)
  56. Wells (1982b:306 and 310)
  57. 1 2 Mott (2012:78)
  58. 1 2 Hughes & Trudgill (1979:35)
  59. Sivertsen (1960:54)
  60. Wells (1982a:129)
  61. Cruttenden (2001:110)
  62. Matthews (1938:35)
  63. 1 2 Wells (1982b:310–311)
  64. Wells (1982b:312–313)
  65. 1 2 3 Mott (2011:75)
  66. Sivertsen (1960:132)
  67. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:193)
  68. Wells (1982b:313–317)
  69. "Phonological change in spoken English". 12 March 2007. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  70. Wright (1981:135)
  71. Wright (1981:134)
  72. Wright (1981:122)
  73. "Rosewarne, David (1984). ''Estuary English''. Times Educational Supplement, 19 (October 1984)". 21 May 1999. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  74. "Wells, John (1994). ''Transcribing Estuary English – a discussion document''. Speech Hearing and Language: UCL Work in Progress, volume 8, 1994, pp. 259-67". Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  75. "Altendorf, Ulrike (1999). ''Estuary English: is English going Cockney?'' In: Moderna Språk, XCIII, 1, 1-11" (PDF). Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  76. 1 2 "5" (PDF). Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  77. "BBC English". BBC English. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  78. Irvine, Chris (September 2008). "RP still most popular accent". London: Retrieved 18 March 2009.
  79. 1 2 "Soaps may be washing out accent – BBC Scotland". BBC News. 4 March 2004. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  80. 1 2 "'We fink, so we are from Glasgow'". Retrieved 21 January 2013.
  81. 1 2 ""Scots kids rabbitin' like Cockneys" – ''Sunday Herald''". Retrieved 21 January 2013.
  82. 1 2 Archived 30 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  83. Rogaliński, Paweł (2011). British Accents: Cockney, RP, Estuary English. p. 15.
  84. Is TV a contributory factor in accent change in adolescents?ESRC Society Today
  85. "Cockney creep puts paid to the patter – ''Evening Times''". 4 March 2004. Retrieved 21 January 2013.
  86. "'Talkin' Jockney'? Variation and change in Glaswegian accent1 – Stuart-Smith, 2007, Journal of Sociolinguistics. Wiley Online Library". 17 April 2007. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  87. A Handbook of Varieties of English, Volume 1, p. 185.
  88. Joanna Przedlacka, 2002. Estuary English? Frankfurt: Peter Lang
  89. Upton, Clive (2012). "Modern Regional English in the British Isles". In Mugglestone, Lynda. The Oxford History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 395.
  90. "Rosewarne, David (1984). ''Estuary English''. Times Educational Supplement, 19 (October 1984)". 1999-05-21. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  91. Wells, John (17 April 2013). "estuariality". Retrieved 1 June 2014.


External links

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