linguistics and lexicography Love English

Stories behind Words: Ruby, Britney … and Andy too

www.wordle.netIt’s Friday night. Fancy a ruby washed down with a couple of britneys? Baffled?

What if I reminded you that Britney’s surname is Spears (which rhymes with beers), and told you that Ruby is Ruby Murray, another popular female singer, but one whose heyday was in the 50s? And Murray rhymes with curry … there, you’ve got it.

This is an example of rhyming slang, that strange form of wordplay popular with Cockneys, or those who wish to appear to be Cockney. Typically in rhyming slang a phrase is chosen whose second element rhymes with the word in question (stairs/apples and pears) and the second rhyming  element is generally dropped (so apples = stairs). Another example is head/loaf of bread, so use your loaf = use your head. As time went on the names of places, events and people tended to be used more (Barnet Fair = hair; Tony Blairs = flares).

It’s unclear whether the original purpose of rhyming slang was to confuse outsiders or whether it is simply the result of linguistic exuberance. The origins of rhyming slang are thought to lie way back in the mid 19th century, but as the examples of Ruby and Britney (and Andy) show, this form of linguistic playfulness is alive and well and still developing. Britney shot to fame right at the end of the 20th century and as early as 2000 her name was being used as rhyming slang for Britain’s favourite alcoholic drink.

So where does Andy come in? Ruby Murray was very popular in her day but most people these days won’t have heard of her, so it seems the Scottish tennis hero may be taking her place.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


  • I’ve always been fascinated by rhyming slang. Although I was born in south-east London myself, I grew up in a slightly more linguistically-genteel area of rural Kent. I’ve often heard my family use the more traditional favourites – my dad, for example, talks about his ‘barnet’ – but I’ve always wondered whether the more colourful new ryhming slang terms really existed outside of Eastenders.

    Then a few years ago, I was on a train going to visit my grandmother when a couple of lads came hurrying through from the next carriage. A bloke near the end of the carriage shouted out to them “Oi, shut the roger, will you?!” Made me smile … especially given my own name.

  • Great piece Liz – and am loving the ‘Roger Moore’ Julie! I hadn’t thought of the way those ones based on proper nouns have a sell-by date, it would be interesting to do a historical analysis and see how far they reflect the era they emerged in, and/or to consider which ones are more enduring and why. As a Murray aficionado and an all-round tennis lover I adore the idea of ‘a few Britneys and an Andy’ – is there really evidence for that?!

  • That’s a great story, Julie. I’m a bit sceptical about rhyming slang too and while some of the older ones are obviously well established – lots of people say ‘use your loaf’ without even realising what the origin is – I think the evidence for some of the others is more tenuous. I’ve read that ruby for curry was used in the popular TV series Only Fools and Horses, but I haven’t been able to find a clip; and I’m not sure that counts as authentic use anyway.
    Of course it’s hard anyway to find evidence of such casual spoken uses – I don’t currently have access to a spoken corpus – which is why it’s so great to hear about an actual authentic and spontaneous example.
    As for whether Andy Murray is now lending his name to Britain’s favourite takeaway, I have to confess my only evidence for it is an article in a certain newspaper. Hence my cunning use of the weasel word ‘may’…

  • Great post, Liz. As Julie says, the great mystery is how far rhyming slang is used in real discourse, or whether it’s just the London equivalent of “stage Irish” (“Top of the morning to you”) or Scottish (“Hoots mon”) etc. Another source, in the 1980s, was the TV series “Minder”, whose anti-hero Arthur Daley was known for it, as the Wikipedia article on the show says: “other features were Arthur’s constant rhyming slang and other misquoted sayings (one being “the world is your lobster”), … and the episode titles, which contained references to films (e.g. “Gunfight at the O.K. Launderette”, “Monday Night Fever”, “National Pelmet”, “The Beer Hunter”, “Days of Fines and Closures”, “The Wrong Goodbye” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Pinner?”).” Arthur Daley (or the scriptwriters) definitely made up quite a lot of rhyming slang, but i think there’s a small number of genuine cases – words that people really do use. “Dog” (as in “Get on the dog to them…”) is one (dog and bone=phone).

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