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A Cockney, in the loosest sense of the word, is a working-class inhabitant of the East End of London. According to one old tradition, the definition is limited to those born within earshot (generally taken to be three miles) of the Bow bells, in other words the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside. As the general din in London has increased this area has thus contracted over time. The area has included the City, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Finsbury, and Hackney although according to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could be heard as far away as from Highgate.

Origins of the word

The term was in use in this sense as early as 1600, when Samuel Rowlands in his satire The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine, referred to 'a Bow-bell Cockney'. 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, meaning first a misshapen egg (1362), then a person ignorant of country ways (1521), then the senses mentioned above.

A second plausible 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)

The region that is called 'Cockney' has changed over time, and is no longer the whole of London. One legendary definition is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells. Unfortunately, the church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Christopher Wren. After the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in the Blitz of the Second World War, and before the bells were replaced in 1961, there was a period when some said that no 'Bow-bell' Cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces problems, for traffic noise and the current lack of a hospital with a maternity ward in earshot of the church would also severely limit the number of 'true' cockneys that could be born.

Naturally, modern Cockneys scoff at that limitation, saying that, 'The qualification is, that you are born within the area that the bells would be audible in, if they were ringing. They did not have to be ringing at the time (of birth), but if you would have been able to hear them if they were, then you qualify for the honour (of calling yourself a Cockney).' A study was done 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 6 miles to the east, 5 miles to the north, 3 miles to the south, and 4 miles to the west.

Thus, while all East Enders are Cockney, not all Cockneys are East Enders. The traditional core neighbourhood of the East End are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Stepney, Hackney, Mile End. It gradually expanded with the postal areas added for urban renewal.[1]

Cockney speech

Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and frequently use Cockney rhyming slang. A fake Cockney accent, as used by some actors, is sometimes called 'Mockney'.

Typical features of Cockney speech include:

  • dropped H, as in not 'arf (not half)
  • use of ain't instead of isn't, am not, are not, has not, and have not
  • pronunciation of TH as F, as in faas'nd for thousand and 'v' in 'bother'.
  • long A sound used instead of OW sound, as in the thousand example
  • use of a glottal stop for intervocalic 't', as in bottle and butter
  • additional H put at the front of words beginning with vowel sounds, as in 'good hevening'.
  • soft 'R'; replacement of 'R' with 'W' as in 'Mewwy Cwistmas'.
  • dark final L as in Millwall, pronounced Miw-waw.

The lengthening of the vowel sound in (for example) grass (from gras to gra:s) was a cockney innovation which spread and is now used by many southern English accents.