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What does brown bread mean in Cockney?

Cockney rhyming slang is a form of slang used in London, England that replaces common words with rhyming phrases. The origin of these slang terms can be traced back to the 19th century in the East End of London. One example of Cockney rhyming slang is the term “brown bread” which is used to refer to the word “dead”.

The Origins of Cockney Rhyming Slang

Cockney rhyming slang first emerged in the early 19th century in the East End of London, which was home to a large working class population. The precise origins of rhyming slang are unknown, but some theories suggest it was used as a cryptolect or secret language that helped prevent outsiders from understanding the conversations of criminals or street traders. The use of rhyme made it more difficult for eavesdroppers to follow the meaning. Rhyming slang served as an in-group code among the working classes of London’s East End.

The use of substituting innocuous rhyming words for common terms allowed speakers to talk about illegal activities or topics considered taboo at the time without the authorities or outsiders catching on. For example, “stairs” would replace “coppers” as rhyming slang for police. Other early examples of Cockney rhyming slang included using “apples and pears” for “stairs,” “plates” for “feet,” and “loaf” for “head.”

Over time, Cockney rhyming slang expanded beyond just the criminal underworld and became more widespread across London’s working classes. It was seen as a colorful way to reinvent and subvert the English language. The slang terms were seen as fun and mischievous, allowing speakers to essentially develop their own coded dialect.

Where Does “Brown Bread” Come From?

The specific rhyming slang phrase “brown bread” emerged in the late 19th or early 20th century. “Brown bread” was used as a replacement for the word “dead.” The logic followed that bread becomes brown when it dies or goes stale. So “brown bread” rhymed with and became slang for being “dead.”

Some etymologists suggest that “brown bread” may have derived from the color of wholemeal bread crusts, which were perceived as healthier than white bread at the time. Wholemeal or brown bread crusts would go stale and harden quicker than white bread when going off, lending to the analogy. The replacement of “dead” with “brown bread” allowed speakers to avoid direct mention of this morbid topic in public.

How is “Brown Bread” Used?

In Cockney rhyming slang, “brown bread” can be used in phrases as a direct substitute for “dead.” For example:
– He’s brown bread = He’s dead

– I’m feeling a bit brown bread today = I’m feeling a bit dead today
– After the accident, he was brown bread on arrival = After the accident, he was dead on arrival

The rhyming slang phrase is truncated further in some uses. Speakers may say “he’s brown” or “he’s browned it” instead of the full “brown bread.”

It can also be adapted into different grammatical forms such as:
– He brown breaded last night = He died last night
– She’s brown breaded = She’s dead

The use of “brown bread” became popular enough that it crossed over into wider slang and general British English vernacular. Many younger speakers today may use the term without awareness of its origins in Cockney rhyming slang.

Other Rhyming Slang Examples

While “brown bread” is one of the most well-known examples, Cockney rhyming slang contains hundreds of other popular terms and phrases. Some additional examples include:

  • Barnet Fair = Hair
  • Loaf of Bread = Head
  • Mince Pies = Eyes
  • Butcher’s Hook = Look
  • Ruby Murray = Curry
  • Bristols = Breasts

Often the rhyming word is abbreviated so “stairs” becomes “apples” and “phone” becomes “dog.” The rhymes can sometimes date the slang terms, since rhymes that were current in the 19th century may sound outdated today.

Rules of Rhyming Slang

There are a few general rules that can help decode and understand Cockney rhyming slang terms:

  • The term rhymes with the actual intended word or phrase
  • The rhyming word typically comes first
  • The second non-rhyming word gets dropped over time
  • Words can substitute for phrases and compound words
  • Vocabulary is reinvented but grammar stays the same

While rhyming slang originated in London’s East End, it later spread across the city and adopted additions from cockney dialects in other areas.

Rhyming Slang in Pop Culture

Usage of Cockney rhyming slang has declined over recent decades as the cultural distinctiveness of the East End diminished. However, it remains part of London’s linguistic heritage. Rhyming slang can often be heard in British movies, TV shows, music and other pop culture portraying working class London characters. Some examples include:

  • Film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels features heavy use of rhyming slang
  • The band Chas n Dave’s songs utilize rhyming slang in lyrics
  • Characters from crime series Peaky Blinders regularly use Cockney slang terms
  • The Beatles’ hit “I Am the Walrus” includes the lyric “elemeno-P” referencing LSD (from “L” and “SD”)

Cockney rhyming slang reminds audiences of London’s history and enduring spirit. It serves as an insider code reinventing language in creative ways.

Usage and Status Today

Use of traditional Cockney rhyming slang has declined over recent generations as the dialect loses ground to multidialectal, multicultural British English. However, it remains ingrained as a nostalgic part of London’s linguistic heritage and landscape.

Some slang rhymes have become part of common British slang like “brown bread.” Other terms are remembered due to popularity in media, literature and music. Rhyming slang may also be used deliberately for humor or irony.

Among communities where the dialect remains strong, rhyming slang persists as a vital, living language. It is a source of local pride and identity. Use of rhyming slang may be seen now as predominantly the preserve of older, working class Londoners rather than youth.

Linguists view Cockney rhyming slang as an important example of language evolution, sociolects and argots. The slang terms provide insight on London’s social history and lived experiences of its working class communities.

Preserving Cockney Rhyming Slang

Efforts are ongoing to preserve records of Cockney rhyming slang due to its cultural and historical importance:

  • Researchers study use and transmission between generations
  • Dictionaries and glossaries document terms with etymologies
  • Works such as books, films and music help maintain awareness
  • Classes and events aim to pass on knowledge to learners
  • Academic institutions and organizations like London’s Cockney Club keep traditions alive

Though it may gradually fade from daily use, Cockney rhyming slang will persist as a tribute to London’s past and the innovators who shaped this linguistic legacy.


In summary, “brown bread” emerged in the 19th century as Cockney rhyming slang for being “dead.” The phrase was an ingenious coded substitute used among working class communities in London’s East End. While use has declined over time, Cockney rhyming slang remains an integral part of the city’s cultural heritage. Phrases like “brown bread” are still recognized today thanks to preservation efforts and depictions in arts, music and popular culture. For linguists and historians, Cockney terms provide invaluable insights on London’s communities and evolution of language over time.