Lexicographers and cockneys


Title page of Blount's 'Glossographia' 1661 edition (BL website)

Title page of Blount’s ‘Glossographia’ 1661 edition (BL website)


Cockney or Cockneigh applyed onely to one born within the Bow-bell, that is within the City of London, which term came first (according to Minshew) out of this Tale; a Citizens Son riding with his Father out of London into the country, and being utterly ignorant how corn grew, or Cattel increased, asked, when he heard a horse neigh, what he did? his Father answered the horse doth neigh: riding farther, the Son heard a Cock crow, and said, doth the Cock neigh too? Hence by way of jeer he was called Cock-neigh.


A Cockney, according to some, is a child that sucks long: But Erasmus takes it for a child wantonly brought up, and calls it in Lat. Mammothreptus.


Cambden takes the Etymology of Cockney, from the River Thamesis, which runs by London , and was of old time called Cockney. Others say the little Brook which runs by Turnbole or Turnmill-Street, was anciently so called.’

(British Library: Learning – Culture and Knowledge)

From Thomas Blount (1618-79), a lexicographer (among other things) born in Worcestershire: Glossographia (first edition 1656; edition cited here is published by Tho. Newcomb for George Sawbridge, London, 1661).  It has entries for over 11,000 words:

derived from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Saxon, Turkish, French and Spanish. He also explained specialist words – those used in fields such as mathematics, anatomy, war, music and architecture. In the preface to the dictionary, Blount explains how he had often stumbled over these words in books, without completely understanding them. He believed the ‘Glossographia’ would be ‘very useful for all such as desire to understand what they read. (BL )

J. Minsheu, 'Ductor in Linguas' title page, upenn.edu website

J. Minsheu, ‘Ductor in Linguas’ title page, upenn.edu website

John Minsheu (the usual spelling) was a London-born lexicographer and linguist, 1520-1627.  Now usually thought of as a plagiarist in his dictionary-making, this entry with its delightful speculation on the etymology of ‘Cockney’ is also cited in the online OED, with slightly variant spelling .

The BL page on Blount points out that he wrote about a number of words that had newly entered street English, mostly picked up in their trading trips abroad by merchants: coffee, chocolate, balcony, boot, drapery and omelette had begun to be used in public drinking houses, artisans’ shops and so on.

John Mulcaster, uncredited image

John Mulcaster, uncredited image

Portrait on Mulcasterfoundation.org website.

Glossographia was unusual for the complexity and detailed narrative definitions/etymologies of the entries, a task not attempted in earlier dictionaries, for example by the London schoolteacher Richard  Mulcaster (c. 1530-1611; the Elementarie of 1582 contains a list of 8,000 words without definitions, not all of them obscure – he is credited as making the first reference in print to ‘football’ in another work of his – in an attempt to redeem English as a legitimate language for scholarly use, and to attempt some standardisation in orthography).

Mulcaster's entry including 'flea' and 'flindermouse'

Mulcaster’s entry including ‘flea’ and ‘flindermouse’

What is a ‘flindermouse’?  A word for ‘bat’, from ‘flinder’ – moth; first OED citation is from Caxton’s 1481 edition of The History of Reynard the Fox; the latest citation is from 1875 in a glossary of Sussex dialect terms.

Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) was the first single-language dictionary of English words published.  Some 3,000 words are listed and given definitions.  He was aware that the rise in the use of ‘inkhorn’ words of classical or contemporary foreign origin was causing confusion and consternation in some people; Cawdrey explained in the first edition, rather ungallantly, who he was targeting in this enterprise:

‘Ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.’ (BL website)

It should be said that at that time few girls would have undergone a formal education.  Like Mulcaster he made no attempt to provide etymologies or citations to indicate usage, and his definitions were simplistic and subjective:

Sodometrie: when one man lyeth filthily with another man

Solitarie, alone, or without company (from the third edition of 1613, reproduced on the BL site).

Cawdrey's title page, from BL website

Cawdrey’s title page, from BL website

To go back to cockney; OED gives the etymology as coken – ay: cocks’ egg, referring humorously to small or misshapen eggs; there’s an apparent parallel in the French ‘coco’, a child’s name for an egg, which became a term of endearment for children themselves (a ‘mother’s darling’, one who ‘suckled long’, as Minsheu suggested, or ‘a cockered child’ – cocker as a verb to mean ‘indulge’ or ‘pamper’ derives from the 15th century from the same lexical root), or derisively for men, hence ‘a squeamish or effeminate fellow’ or milksop.

From 1520 it could also mean ‘A derisive appellation for a townsman, as the type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country’.  From there it’s a small step to the now usual sense of native Londoner,  ‘more or less contemptuous or bantering, and particularly used to connote the characteristics in which the born Londoner was supposed to be inferior to other English people.’  OED’s first citation with this denotation is from 1600.

My mother was a cockney.





5 thoughts on “Lexicographers and cockneys

  1. “My mother was a cockney.” (Awwww!)

    This essay made me smile….

    I visited London in the winter of 1991, and went walking around the East End. Loved Brick Lane’s Indian shops, the “workingmen’s clubs” and the old pubs and alleys. Ran into an apprentice taxi driver on a motorcycle who was learning all the London roads to take the test… which is very hard. I didn’t see any of the “Pearlie” people, but there were pearlie souvenirs!

  2. It’s a long time since your visit, Maureen; London has changed considerably since then – enormous skyscrapers in the City area bristle like porcupine quills. It’s still a bustling, vibrant place. The taxi test is called ‘The Knowledge’ – hard to imagine committing all those streets to memory. Thanks for the comment, and glad it wasn’t too dry and made you smile.

    • Sure thing! I don’t find your essays dry at all, would just say they are “erudite.” Nothin’ wrong with that. 🙂

      RIP Elmore Leonard. My favorite from him was his writing tip: “Try to leave out the parts that no one reads.” (paraphrased slightly)

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