Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU)
Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)

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Performing Arts

Rhyming Slang

Rhyming slang is used to decorate everyday speech. A word such as stairs will be replaced by a phrase such as apples and pears, e.g. the man walked up the apples and pairs to the office on the next floor. Rhyming slang is often used as a form of light humour.

Reasons for selection

Traditional folk verbal arts such as joke-telling, rhyming-slang, yarn-spinning (brief story-telling)and folk poetry are among the most authentic and unique of Australian folk arts, and are true performances. Although the language used is English, there are distinctive Australian qualities to these verbal arts. For the purposes of this Data Bank, rhyming slang will be featured.

Area where performed

All over Australia

Essential elements of the performing art

Verbal art

Detailed explanation

Rhyming slang as used in Australia is often called Cockney rhyming slang and originated in England among the Cockneys, i.e. working-class people living in the East End of London. Many Cockney Londoners came to Australia either as convicts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries or as free settlers. However, it seems that Cockney rhyming slang may not have come to Australia with the convicts, as there is no rhyming slang included in either of two nineteenth-century compilations of Australian and British convict slang (Vaux and Grose).

The Australian folklorist John Meredith's 1984 book on the subject argues that 1900 is a more likely focus for the growing popularity of rhyming slang, particularly influenced by comedians in popular theatres and music halls.

Some examples of rhyming slang which are still used today are plates of meat (meaning feet), e.g. I've walked so far that my plates of meat are hurting and Noah's Ark (meaning shark), eg you shouldn't swim in Sydney Harbour because of the Noah's Arks.

Rhyming slang in Australia is almost exclusively used by males, mainly in informal contexts and among friends or work-mates. It may well be considered a form of male verbal display, a true folk performing art.

Much of Australian English speech is under threat from international media influences, particularly American. It may therefore be considered to be endangered.

Publication and textual documentation

1984 Learn to Talk Old Jack Lang: A Handbook of Australian Rhyming Slang.
Kenthurst NSW: Kangaroo Press.

1970 (c. 1945) The Australian Language.
Melbourne: Sun Books.

Audio documentation

no information at present

Visual documentation

no information at present

Institution/organisation involved in preservation and promotion

no information at present

Data provider

Dr. Gwenda Davey AM
Honorary Research Associate
National Centre for Australian Studies
Monash University, Melbourne
Address: Clayton, Victoria, 3168, Melbourne, Australia