Ave a butchers at er barnet

The title of this post is an example of Cockney, a form of speech you might hear in London, specifically in the Cheapside district of the City of London. It includes to bits of rhyming slang – butchers and barnet. Do you know, or can you guess what they mean?

To (h)ave a butchers (the initial h is not used in Cockney) means to have a look or just to look. It is used in informal English in much of the UK, and I didn’t realise it was rhyming slang until I discovered that it actually stands for butcher’s hook = look.

Barnet means hair, and until I read Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang by Max Décharné, which I just finished, I didn’t know that barnet is also rhyming slang: Barnet Fair = hair.

Barnet Fair is a fair that has been taking place since 1588 in Barnet, a part of north London also known as High Barnet or Chipping Barnet. The main focus of the fair was originally horses and other livestock, but these days it is a funfair, and takes place from 4-7 September each year.

So the title means ‘Have a look at her hair’.

Incidentally, in Swedish barnet means ‘the child’ from barn [bɑːrn] (child, infant, baby, offspring, family) [source].

Barn comes from the Old Norse barn (child), from the Proto-Germanic *barną (child), from the Proto-Indo-European *bʰer- (to bear, to carry), which is also the root of the Scots bairn (child), the Icelandic / Faroese / Norwegian / Danish barn (child), and related words in other Indo-European languages [source].

According to Wikipedia, rhyming slang was first recording in the East End of London in about 1840, and the earliest glossaries of this slang appeared in 1859 in the Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words by John Camden Hotten. He included examples such as frog and toad (road), apples and pears (stairs), Battle of the Nile (a tile, a vulgar term for a hat), and Duke of York (take a walk).

It is unknown why this type of slang originally emerged. It was possibly a game, or a way to confuse outsiders, a way for criminals to confuse the police, and/or a way to maintain a sense of belonging.

More up-to-date examples of rhyming slang, from cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk include:

– Andy McNab = kebab / cab
– Angela Merkel = circle
– Barack Obama = pyjamas
– Calvin Klein = wine / fine (body)
– Captain Kirk = work / Turk
– Dudley Moore = score (£20)
– Mariah Carey = scary

Is there rhyming slang in other languages?

4 thoughts on “Ave a butchers at er barnet

  1. I heard “septic” all the time when I lived in London…
    Septic tank – yank (not very flattering for Americans)

    I also heard, much less frequently, “Britneys”…
    Britney Spears – beers

    My dad uses “berk” frequently, which he means as a gentle synonym for idiot or silly;
    I was pretty shocked to find out that it comes from Berkshire hunt – c*nt.

  2. @Simon Just a small typo: the last American president’s name is spelled Barack Obama, with a -ck.

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