London's Cockneys compete for Olympic attention

London's Cockneys compete for Olympic attention

Published Jul. 20, 2012 4:45 p.m. ET

It's a safe bet that most of the 200 or so countries competing in the London Olympics are already represented in the British capital, one of the world's most multicultural cities.

Yet one of London's oldest communities is trying not to get lost in the clamor.

Cockneys have been proud residents of London's East End for centuries - and they want to make sure the world knows it.

''I'm a Cockney and I'm proud to be one,'' said Lutfur Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets, an inner-city London borough that stretches from the Tower of London, across the East End to the edge of the city's shiny new Olympic Park.


Bangladesh-born and East End-bred, Rahman may not fit the traditional image of a Cockney, but he is calling for the Cockney dialect to be recognized as an official language of the borough, whose residents already speak 126 different tongues.


Traditionally, a Cockney is anyone ''born within the sound of Bow bells'' - the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in the heart of medieval London. It's usually taken to mean a working-class native Londoner, or more specifically an east Londoner.

University of London linguist Sue Fox says the name comes from the Middle English for ''cock's egg'' - ''a small, misshapen thing ... a misfit in society.'' A certain underdog combativeness has always been part of the Cockney character.

Cockneys speak in a distinctive accent, marked by elongated vowels, dropped `H's and glottal stops - imagine the characters from the UK soap opera ''EastEnders'' - and use a distinctive form of rhyming slang, in which ''would you believe it'' becomes ''would you Adam and Eve it?''

Cockney traditions flourished in the tight-knit communities of London's East End, but the area has been transformed since World War II, when thousands of homes were destroyed - and thousands of people died - in German bombing.

After the war, many East Enders moved further afield. The area, long a magnet for newcomers because of its proximity to the city's docks, now draws incomers from across Britain and around the world. Today's East End is a classic cultural mosaic, where traditional pubs sit alongside halal restaurants, art galleries and fruit and vegetable stalls. It's also a magnet for young people who come for jobs in London's traditional financial center, the City, and the new Canary Wharf business district nearby.


Tower Hamlets officials decided to do a bit of Cockney awareness-raising ahead of the July 27-Aug. 12 Olympics, offering journalists traditional grub such as jellied eels and meat pies in an East End pub, in the company of so-called Cockney royalty, Pearly Kings and Queens.

These flamboyantly dressed figures, their black costumes covered in thousands of pearl buttons, are among the most recognizable Cockney symbols - Rahman called them ''London's other royal family.''

The ''pearlies'' have their origins a century ago in a street sweeper named Henry Croft, who adapted the button-festooned clothes worn by London costermongers - apple-sellers - to help draw attention to his charity fundraising. Today, pearlies across London don elaborately decorated hand-sewn outfits to raise money for charity.

Many pass their honorary Cockney titles on from parent to child. But they worry their traditions may soon be lost.

''We are dying out a bit,'' said Jimmy Jukes, the Pearly King of Bermondsey and Camberwell in south London. ''Now London's a multicultural city, and people are bringing their own culture and their own way of life.

''We do try to bring new blood in, but a lot of people think we're just about fancy dress.''


Some believe the distinctive Cockney brand of English is also in danger of dying out. In today's East End, the children of Somali and Bangladeshi immigrants speak with Cockney accents, but their slang is as likely to come from American jargon and Jamaican patois as Cockney argot.

Yet most Londoners recognize that ''apples and pears'' is rhyming slang for stairs or that ''trouble and strife'' means wife, even if they wouldn't use the expressions themselves.

Fox says trying to preserve the language is like trying to nail down water - it is always evolving.

''It has never been this pure linguistic variety,'' she said. ''It is constantly in flux.''

The area has changed, too, with long-term residents voicing the common big-city complaints about atomization and anonymity.

''I can walk down this road - I've lived here 60 years - and I wouldn't know anyone,'' said John Proud, a lifelong East Ender. ''It's the way of the world.''


But don't count the Cockneys out just yet. This is a community that's proud of its resilience. East Enders, after all, withstood the bulk of wartime bombing and personify Britain's ''Blitz Spirit.''

''We're pretty robust,'' said Vicky Groves, the 32-year-old Pearly Queen of Bow, an east London neighborhood. ''Keep your chin up, keep on, muddle through.''

And the ever-evolving Cockney language endures. A curry used to be widely known as a ''ruby,'' short for Ruby Murray, a 1950s singer. The dish now has started to be known as an ''Andy,'' after the tennis player.

A TV ad for potato chips bills it as the perfect snack ''for when you're Hank Marvin'' - or starvin'.

''I'm very proud to be a Cockney,'' said Groves, who has married into a family that boasts four generations of Pearly Kings and Queens. ''It's where I'm from. It's who I am.''

She hopes to share that culture with the world during the Summer Games.

''All eyes are on London,'' she said. ''I think it's great to be able to say, we've got traditions that go back hundreds of years.''


Jill Lawless can be reached at