Is Australian rhyming slang in a bit of froth and bubble? Let’s take a Captain Cook (spoiler: the billy lids may hold the key)


Have you heard? Barry Crocker’s having a … well, Barry Crocker (“shocker”) of a time with those Reg Grundies (“undies”) people.

Karens everywhere can relate – they know it’s Jeffed up when your Danned name gets swept up in social parlance.

And sure, Crocker has a point. We’ve got to draw the line somewhere when these corporate Noahs (“sharks”, from “Noah’s Ark”) claim our names.

But we reckon having your name become part of the old Jack Lang (“slang”) – especially Aussie rhyming slang – is apples (“nice”, from “apples and spice”). So let’s take a Captain Cook (“look”) at what’s so special about rhyming slang.

Terces segaugnal: enter the world of secret languages

Over the years there have been many secret languages in English, and all of them distort words in some way, often with remarkable skill. Particularly impressive is the flip-flop of backslang, when words are said backwards — “secret languages” becomes “terces segaugnal” (yob “boy” is a rare survivor of Victorian-era backslang).

The disguise prevents bystanders or eavesdroppers from understanding what’s being said, but mainly it operates a bit like a “clique” or in-group recognition device. Being able to manipulate language in this way means you’re automatically part of the gang — it’s also a matter of identifying what’s become routine for those involved, much like slang and jargon generally.

There’s the fun of the game, too, and rhyming slang is a real lexical and etymological pass the parcel. Often we don’t even know we’re playing it. Sidney Baker gives a wonderful example: Melbourne (“back”) from Melbourne Grammar (“hammer”) from hammer and tack (“back”), which, it so happens, is also rhyming slang for zac (“sixpence”) — so Melbourne is also a “sixpence”!

The comic cuts (“guts”) of Aussie rhymin’ Jack Lang

There’s no sign of rhyming slang before the 1800s. Not a single example appears in the first edition of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (from 1785). Dating early slang is tricky, especially if it’s a secret language, but if rhyming slang had been around then, it would be among Grose’s 4,000 colloquialisms and vulgarisms.

The earliest reference to it occurs in John Camden Hotten’s 1859 slang dictionary. Hotten suggests this kind of slang “was introduced about twelve or fifteen years ago”.

People assume it began life within criminal language, and certainly this was where it was first discovered. But most likely it was the lexical invention of Cockney and Irish navvies (labourers in civil engineering projects). It later made its way into the “flash language” of the Victorian underworld.

These beginnings explain the presence of rhyming slang in early Australian English. The first recorded example (1844) is Jimmy Grant or jimmygrant for “immigrant”. Whoever he was, Jimmy Grant went on to inspire the Pom/Pommy, short for pomegranate (Pommy Grant, also “immigrant”). The Australian National Dictionary has a lovely account of the word play around the jimmies and the pommies.

Other early examples date from the late 1800s (like rubbity dub “pub”), although most of today’s survivors are from the 1900s, including favourites like dead horse (“sauce”) and she’s apples.

“Australian” rhyming slang in the USA

Our seppo chinas (“mates” from “china plates”) haven’t taken up rhyming slang as much as we Aussies. In the US, rhyming slang has largely stayed in the criminal underworld – it’s been popular among prisoners and white supremacists.

But it may surprise you to learn that rhyming slang in the US underworld was called “Australian slang”. This may be linked to the arrival of Australian criminals, the Sydney Ducks, on the US goldfields in the mid-19th century. The Ducks later did a Harold Holt (“bolt”) and left the US — they also may have left a word or two, and the label “Australian slang”.

Regardless, the Australian-ness of US rhyming slang is certainly in doubt. When a US expert on slang and argots, David W. Maurer, sent a list of 352 rhyming slang terms to Sidney Baker, the latter found fewer than 3% of these terms were Australian — just like many of our so-called Americanisms aren’t in fact American English.

Jimmy, Herby and Oscar: the grocer’s cart (“heart”) of Aussie rhyming slang

Rhyming slang is still much loved if the amount of talk is anything to go by.

As part of a wider project on Aussie slang, we examined articles from The Australian and The Age from 1996-2020 and found that, respectively, 7.32% and 10.70% of references to “slang” were to “rhyming slang”. We can compare this to combined references to “Australian slang” or “Aussie slang”, which clocked in at 7.01% and 9.05%.

But what is it about the old Jack Lang – this Aussie rhyming slang?

We reckon rhyming slang hits that sweet spot of secret, taboo and irreverent humour. For instance, every good Aussie knows that a seppo is full of shit (Yank->septic tank->septic->seppo) – but a seppo doesn’t necessarily.

However, whether it’s Jimmy Dancer (“cancer”), Herby de Groote (“root”) or Oscar Ache (“cash”), rhyming slang also gives us a way to discuss things that make us squeamish – like disease, sex and money.

Is the rhyming Jack Lang in for some froth and bubble?

Barry Crocker might be getting his Reg Grundies in a knot over the ad, but if our recent survey is an indicator, rhyming slang is in for some froth and bubble (“trouble”).

We surveyed more than 2,300 Australians on their use of Australian words. Most rhyming slang examples came from participants who were 60 or older.

What’s happening? It’s hard to know for sure, but slangs are like this – they don’t age well. We can’t expect those billy lids (“kids”) to love the same words as us.

In fact, billy’s a great example of this process – it might be giving way to a new slang homonym billy, referring to a “bong” (likely a play on billabong). (For those not in the know, a billy is a special kind of cherry ripe “pipe”.)

And, in closing, it is worth noting our survey shows another glimmer of hope for rhyming slang. One grandmother in the survey said:

“I taught Reg Grundies to my granddaughter. She thinks it’s funny. She is 7.”

Sidney Baker long ago pointed out that Australian rhyming slang’s popularity comes and goes in waves of vogue. Perhaps there’s a new generation of rhyming slang users on the horizon. And right now, we’re pinning our hope on the under-10 set.

Author Bios: Howard Manns is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Kate Burridge is Professor of Linguistic both at Monash University