24 April 2023
Recording of the week: You havin’ a bubble, mate?
This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.
Last month, while preparing for a panel discussion at the Modern Cockney Festival, I stumbled across a Guardian interview with John Cooper Clarke discussing his poem 'I Wanna Be Yours'. Reflecting on his career, Clarke notes he was ‘never on the sausage’, an intriguing use of Salford (?) rhyming slang for ‘dole’ (i.e. unemployment benefit). The convention with rhyming slang, of course, is that the final element – i.e. the component that rhymes with the target word – is invariably omitted. When people say ‘give us a butcher’s’ for ‘let me have a look’, they’re using the well-established rhyming slang form butcher’s (hook) [= ‘look’]; Clarke’s use of ‘sausage’ here implies sausage (roll) [= ‘dole’]. A quick glance at authoritative reference sources such as Cockney Rhyming Slang, Green’s Dictionary of Slang and Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (Wiley, 2010) reveals numerous rhyming slang variants for ‘dole’, including:
Andy (Cole) / Cheryl (Cole) / George (Cole) / Nat (King Cole)
De La Soul
Rock & Roll / Jam (roll) / Sausage (roll)
The term ‘sausage’ itself also occurs in at least two rhyming slang forms, each with three possible meanings:
Sausage (& mash) [= 'cash/crash/smash']
Sausage (roll) [= 'dole/goal/pole']
Cockney ATM © Bank Machine Company. Image taken from Melik, J. (2012) bbc.co.uk
The enduring appeal of rhyming slang and the fact it’s an endlessly productive process means it remains a playful source of lexical innovation for Londoners (and others). Original forms of rhyming slang are created all the time; some are adopted enthusiastically and subsequently gain wider recognition. To illustrate this, listen to these recordings submitted in 2011 to the Library’s Evolving English WordBank by three young Londoners:
'We use some rhyming slang still not an awful lot but like having a bubble you’re having a laugh'
'You’re having a bubble mate I think that came from the East End of London when they spoke Cockney some years ago'
'Having a bubble means to have a laugh and I think it’s Cockney rhyming slang for having a bubble bath'
Surprisingly, there’s no entry for bubble (bath) [= ‘laugh’] in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which suggests it must be a relatively recent coinage. It does, however, merit an entry at Cockney Rhyming Slang and features in Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (2014), where it’s classified as a modern variation on the older form TIN (Bath). Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (Wiley, 2010) includes a citation from 2007 and suggests it’s most commonly heard in the ‘sarcastically rhetorical question you havin’ a bubble?’.
It’s difficult to predict why some rhyming slang forms take hold more successfully than others but bubble (bath) [= ‘laugh’] is somehow inherently suitable as it’s an item of everyday vocabulary. It’s also a slightly frivolous object in its own right and has the added attraction of alliteration. Not only that but it requires quintessentially ‘Cockney’ phonology to work: although the rhyming component ‘bath’ is seldom actually uttered, in order for it to rhyme with ‘laugh’ we implicitly accept a pronunciation with TH-fronting – i.e. it has to end with a <f> sound as in e.g. ‘staff’. I also wonder if the success of bubble [= ‘laugh’] is also maybe reinforced by a potential association for Londoners (well, West Ham United fans anyway) with the stereotypically Cockney song, 'I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles?' Perhaps that’s stretching it a bit, but nevertheless having a bubble certainly brings a smile to my face. Or should I say boat (race)?
Melik, J. 2012. Cockney Cash: Lady Godivas and speckled hens. [18 April] Available from: www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17535156
Thorne, T. 2014. Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. London: Bloomsbury.
Wiley, R. 2010. Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable. Edinburgh: Chambers.