1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cockney

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COCKNEY, a colloquial name applied to Londoners generally, but more properly confined to those born in London, or more strictly still to those born within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church. The origin of the word has been the subject of many guesses, from that in John Minsheu’s lexicon, Ductor in linguas (1617), which gives the tale of the town-bred child who, on hearing a horse neigh, asked whether a “cock neighed” too, to the confusion of the word with the name of the Utopia, the land of Cockaigne (q.v.). The historical examination of the various uses of “Cockney,” by Sir James Murray (see Academy, 10th of May 1890, and the New English Dictionary, s.v.) clearly shows the true derivation. The earliest form of the word is cokenay or cokeney, i.e. the ey or egg, and coken, genitive plural of “cock,” “cocks’ eggs” being the name given to the small and malformed eggs sometimes laid by young hens, known in German as Hahneneier. An early quotation, in Langland’s Piers Plowman, A. vii. 272, gives the combination of “cokeneyes” and bacon to make a “collop,” or dish of eggs and bacon. The word then applied to a child overlong nursed by its mother, hence to a simpleton or milksop. Thus in Chaucer, Reeve’s Tale, the word is used with daf, i.e. a fool. The particular application of the name as a term of contempt given by country folk to town-bred people, with their dandified airs and ignorance of country ways and country objects, is easy. Thus Robert Whittington or Whitinton (fl. 1520), speaks of the “cokneys” in such “great cytees as London, York, Perusy” (Perugia), showing the general use of the word. It was not till the beginning of the 17th century that “cockney” appears to be confined to the inhabitants of London.

The so-called “Cockney” accent or pronunciation has varied in type. In the first part of the 19th century, it was chiefly characterized by the substitution of a v for a w, or vice versa. This has almost entirely disappeared, and the chief consonantal variation which exists is perhaps the change of th to f or v, as in “fing” for thing, or “favver” for father. This and the vowel-sound change from ou to ah, as in “abaht” for “about,” are only heard among the uneducated classes, and, together with other characteristic pronunciations, phrases and words, have been well illustrated in the so-called “coster” songs of Albert Chevalier. The most marked and widely-prevalent change of vowel sound is that of ei for ai, so that “daily” becomes “dyly” and “may” becomes “my.” This is sometimes so marked that it almost amounts to incapacity to distinguish the vowels a and i, and is almost universal in large classes of the population of London. The name of the “Cockney School of Poetry” was applied in 1817 to the literary circle of which Leigh Hunt was the principal representative, though Keats also was aimed at. The articles in Blackwood’s Magazine, in which the name appeared, have generally, but probably wrongly, been attributed to John Gibson Lockhart.