The Cockney Alphabet
Jonathon Green, the notorious lexicographer of slang, introduces Paul Bommer’s beautiful print celebrating Cockney culture.
Illustrated with characteristic brio by Paul Bommer, this is The Cockney Alphabet, sometimes known as the Surrealist Alphabet. It is first recorded in the late 1920s, and was seen as a parody of the mnemonic-didactic lists of letters and words that have been taught to children from at least the mid-nineteenth century. It seems to require English as its base language, and while it has been offered in a variety of forms, it pays a consistent tribute to that much-loved linguistic freak: the pun.
It must, because in language as in life we demand our creation myths, have an origin. My predecessor in slang lexicography, Eric Partridge, who in 1961 published a monograph on the subject, sought links to the children’s alphabets of the nineteenth century when A was most commonly either an ‘Apple’ or an ‘Archer’, and the practical ones of World War I signallers when clarity was all and the letter was enunciated as ack (able and alpha would follow later, products of a new cataclysm). Pushing further back, he made reference to Old English. But this was surely wishful thinking and the origins, or to be more precise the first recorded appearance, remains less than a century old.
It all starts around 1930. There are roots of course and attributions, not least to a throwaway line from Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation – his skewering of supposedly smart society’s verbal clichés – of 1734, and Swift was also responsible for a humorous alphabet in which each phrase was created by prefixing a letter of the Greek alphabet to the word guinea, e.g. alpha guinea (half a…), beta guinea (bet a…), gamma (i.e. game which also means bet) guinea etc., but for the genuine beginnings we must return to the palmy, not to mention stilted days when Lord Reith still sat on high and all was right with the BBC:
There have been alternatives – A, for instance, can stand for ‘ism’, E for ‘brick’, N for ‘mation’, T for ‘painful’ and Z for ‘effect’ and each letter can muster half a dozen or so – but this is the canonical list. Paul Bommer’s version follows very much on these lines. It has an added dimension, denied other examples of this popular, if skewed A-Z, of referring whenever possible to Spitalfields landmarks, for instance the action of K for Restaurant ‘takes place’ in E. Pellicci. R for Cock Linnet offers a sign for the one-time animal market of Club Row, P for relief is set on Middlesex Street (with ads for ‘Schmutter,’ ‘Whistles’ and ‘Titfers’) and so on.
Charlie Clapham and Bill Dwyer, the cross-talk double act who were the first of their kind to be broadcast on the BBC, and the first to air this version of the A-Z, called it the ‘Surrealist Alphabet’; more often it is known as the Cockney one. The question must be asked; is it in fact either? As for the former, the French poet Apollinaire, who coined the term in 1918, would not have recognised it as especially avant garde. If it is surrealist then it is not ‘super-realism, the literal meaning, but a weaker, popularised use: quirky or eccentric. As for Cockney… listening to the scratchy recording of Clapham and Dwyer from 1933, it is apparent that the former, who had been a clerk in legal chambers, was no East Ender. Photos have him in a stereotyped ‘silly ass’ monocle, sometimes even a topper, and his accent is to match. Dwyer, who had been a commercial traveller, is a candidate for Cockneydom, but if his syllables suggest a Londoner, they are nothing like the self-consciously tortured tones of such music hall ‘costermongers’ as Gus Elen.
It was not the first word-game that used the alphabet as its source. For instance there was the nursery sequence, again based on that ubiquitous apple, in this case en-pastried: ‘A was an Apple-pie, B bit it, C cut it, D dealt it, all the way to ‘X,Y,Z and Ampersand’ who ‘All wish’d for a piece in hand’. Nor is it the last. In December 2000 Jeff Aronson, a clinical pharmacologist, published his ‘medical alphabet’ in The Lancet:
The list ended with ‘Z for de doctor (I’be got a code iddy doze)’, although that combination had already been used in less specialist phonetic compilations.
It is, however, the most important, or at least the source from which all others have stemmed. The reality seems to be, and again I nod to Partridge, that the alphabet was generated sometime in the Twenties, as a form of game conjured up by the touring casts of Variety shows, playing with words to help while away the tedium of provincial boarding houses. Its basis is indeed the old children’s alphabets, which it parodies. Somewhere along that line Clapham and Dwyer must have picked it up (although they had had no Variety career themselves); the radio gave it a popularity among the uninitiated. It was not especially Cockney – Spitalfields references aside, it is only the dropping of the aitches in the first line (and in L, i.e. ’ell, and R, i.e. ’arf) that suggests the connection (and Cockneys are hardly unique in that omission) – but after the pre-war radio duo, it was heard most commonly on the lips of comedians, again BBC stars, such as Flanagan and Allen (they of the Crazy Gang), Arthur Askey (and R, in one version is ‘for Askey’ and in time ‘for Daley’) and Ted Ray, all of whom played the metropolitan card.
So if not surrealist and if – strictly speaking – Cockney has to be declared a misnomer, then what is the alphabet? The answer must be what Partridge if few others have termed it: a comic phonetic alphabet. Ultimately it is about pronunciation and beyond that, puns. Sometimes ‘for’ may need to be pronounced ‘fer’ but at others it requires the sound of standard English. As in rhyming slang certain popular figures, e.g. ‘I for Novello,’ have been sustained within its playfulness, but again, they are not especially Cockney. Others have vanished, e.g. ‘K for ancis’: Kay Francis, a twenties star, having left little trace. ‘K for Restaurant’ has succeeded, and is timeless. That it depends on the pronunciation ‘kayf’ rather than the Frenchified café does nod Eastwards, but the word is far more usually sounded ‘caff’.
Clapham and Dwyer were big enough to be included in early TV’s programming for the 1937 Coronation but they seem to have faded with the Thirties. Their alphabetical creation – or at least popularization – is in robust health. The ludic potential remains. Y for ‘unts, anyone? Z for Elli?
Copies of Jonathon Green’s epic three volume masterpiece ‘Green’s Dictionary of Slang’ are available here.
Copies of Paul Bommer’s print ‘The Cockney Alphabet’ are available from the Spitalfields Life online shop.
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