It’s every historical writer’s nightmare—when you discover that perfect bit of historical fact…too late! Now, the worst-case-scenario is when you discover you’ve made a dreadful, terrible, cringe-worthy error (yeah…been there, done that). Last spring, I rather made a discovery that would have been super fun to include in previous books, but which wasn’t a mistake. What was this fun discovery?
Cockney rhyming slang.
In April, I was on a writing retreat with my best friend/critique partner, working on book 3 in the Shadows Over England Series—book 1, A Name Unknown, was just a couple months from releasing on July 4. I took a moment to look up some Cockney slang. I was really only looking for a nice, simple substitutes for girl. You know, in the line of dame, but which had a London of 1914 flair. What I found was a whole slang tradition that made me want to go back and rewrite my entire series to include it (totally impossible at that point, of course).
Though its origins aren’t quite clear, Cockney rhyming slang is thought to have been created to keep outsiders from knowing what the speakers are saying while also being pure fun to those speakers. The system is pretty simple.
When you want to substitute a word, you start with a rhyming word; then you find a common phrase that contains said rhyming word …and choose the non-rhyming word from that phrase as your substitute.
Girl rhymes with twirl. So what’s a phrase that has twirl in it? “Twist and twirl.” So they call a girl a twist.
Wife rhymes (hilariously) with strife. A common phrase at the time that involved strife was “storm and strife.” So wife = storm.
Stairs. Pears. “Apples and pears.” So you might tell someone to go down the apples to fetch you something.
Those are in fact the three examples I chose to incorporate into An Hour Unspent.
Of course, the difficulty of finding something fun like this is the temptation to overuse it. I encountered this same problem many moons ago when I was working on a 20s novel (unpublished). I loved the rich slang of the era, but I couldn’t have each and every character spitting jazz-age phrases out every other line. I instead had one character who considered herself very modern and stylish who incorporated a slew of these slang phrases—“Put on your glad rags, baby, and let’s hit the town. This new speakeasy is the elephant’s instep!” Otherwise, a character might say a slang word here or there, but only when it was one my readers would know, or which wouldn’t be too distracting.
In the Shadows Over England Series, each book features a member of a rather special family of thieves. Most of them are pure Cockney stock, children who were orphaned at young ages and decided to stick together. They grew up together, forged a family through sheer grit and determination, and are now using their, er, rather specific skill sets to aid in the Great War that began in Europe in 1914.
One thing I love about these characters is showcasing the tough, street-smart side of the Edwardian era, especially when pitted against the more genteel set that our novels today usually focus on. In my series, one half of my hero-heroine couple is Cockney, and the other of a gentler society. So obviously, if I want to incorporate Cockney rhyming slang at all, it has to be sparse.
In An Hour Unspent, I have my hero leading my middle-class girl from a far different neighborhood into a Cockney pub, where all his neighbors are calling out, “Who’s the twirl, Barclay? Don’t tell me you’ve found a storm!” My hero himself never uses the slang, but I had oh-so-much fun peppering those few instances in.
And really did wish I could have pulled A Name Unknown off the presses real quick to insert one or two in book 1 of the series as well! Rosemary, you see, is tough and scrappy, a Cockney girl through and through. I can totally imagine her using a few choice phrases of rhyming slang just to confuse a certain busybody in the Cornish town she’s visiting for her assignment in the book. And frankly, I can also imagine hero Peter Holstein being intrigued by it and deciding to incorporate it into one of his novels…
Because we writers just can’t resist fun turns of phrase!
More about A Name Unknown:
Edwardian Romance and History Gains a Twist of Suspense
Rosemary Gresham has no family beyond the band of former urchins that helped her survive as a girl in the mean streets of London. Grown now, they concentrate on stealing high-value items and have learned how to blend into upper-class society. But when Rosemary must determine whether a certain wealthy gentleman is loyal to Britain or to Germany, she is in for the challenge of a lifetime. How does one steal a family’s history, their very name?
Peter Holstein, given his family’s German blood, writes his popular series of adventure novels under a pen name. With European politics boiling and his own neighbors suspicious of him, Peter debates whether it might be best to change his name for good. When Rosemary shows up at his door pretending to be a historian and offering to help him trace his family history, his question might be answered.
But as the two work together and Rosemary sees his gracious reaction to his neighbors’ scornful attacks, she wonders if her assignment is going down the wrong path. Is it too late to help him prove that he’s more than his name?
Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of over a dozen historical novels and novellas, ranging from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her British series. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into her novels…to offset her real life, which is blessedly boring. She passes said boring life with her husband and kids in the beautiful mountains of eastern West Virginia.