The language of London

by Darren Clare

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London. A vast, multicultural metropolis that’s home to more than 9 million people. And with over 300 languages spoken across the city, London is a linguistic melting pot. Since the first inhabitants in Roman times, London has always been an important hub for trade, tourism, education and culture. As you’d expect from a city of its size and relevance, it’s picked up a fair few unique words, phrases (and even its very own language). As a London-based copywriting agency, we find it fascinating how these colloquialisms have evolved and spread into lexicons worldwide. Here are some of our favourites from the language of London:

Cockney Rhyming Slang

We’d be remiss if we didn’t start with the most famous London language. It’s named after the people of the East End of London. However, you’ll find rhyming slang across Ireland and Australia, too – due to migrants from London making themselves a home there. Whether cockney rhyming slang was invented for fun or to obscure the true meaning of what was being said is debated, but many of its most famous phrases have become commonplace in language worldwide. For example, did you know the story behind these two common phrases? The phrase “have a butcher’s” meaning to have a look, is derived from the rhyming slang “butcher’s hook”. The expression “blowing a raspberry” comes from the phrase “raspberry tart” for “fart”.

Boris Bikes

This slang term is used to describe the tens of thousands of bikes for hire across London, named because it was Boris Johnson (when he was London Mayor), who was a vocal advocate for the bike-share scheme when it was launched in 2010. The bikes were initially sponsored by Barclays and had blue decals; however, they’re now sponsored by Santander and are red (which complement the red phone boxes rather nicely, in our opinion!)
Over the past decade, lots of investment has been made in adding additional cycleways across London to make it easier and safer for people to sightsee and commute across the city. An additional 450km of new routes are being created over the next four years to boost this cost-effective and planet-friendly form of transport.


A mainstay of UK television since 1985, Eastenders follows the lives of the residents of the fictional East London Borough of Walford. It’s given us characters such as Peggy Mitchell, ‘Dirty Den’ and Kat Slater – and storylines ranging from the absurd to the incredibly progressive. The impact it’s had on British pop culture is undeniable. And, thanks to social media, you’ll find famous lines, such as ‘GET OUT OF MY PUB’, picked up and utilised across the world.

Jellied Eel

Given the size of the river Thames, it’s not really a surprise that eels have long been a staple of the local Londoners’ diet. Eels were cheap, nutritious and readily available if a touch… boring? Whilst the dish is strongly associated with London, you can find variations of jellied eel across Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands. Whilst many are squeamish at the thought of munching on eels covered in savoury jelly, the dish is surprisingly delicious and also very good for you. Eels are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and vitamin A, so maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss them…

(The) Tube

The Tube (or the London Underground to give it its proper name) has been around for so long that its trains were steam-powered when it opened in 1863. And, with 11 lines stopping at 270 stations, the Tube is the most extensive metro system in the UK. It carries over 5 million passengers a day – and you may have experienced first-hand some very interesting social rules that have evolved when ‘riding the Tube’. These include a distinct lack of eye contact, an aversion to small talk and a desperate leap between closing doors to ensure you don’t have to wait a whole two minutes for the next train to arrive.

The Knowledge

Black cab drivers are famed for their incredible knowledge of London’s roads, and they must pass a test called ‘The Knowledge’, which requires them to memorise every street in the city before earning their stripes. Some have gone as far as to call the test one of the most challenging tests of any kind in the world. Its origins are murky, but the test has  been in place since at least 1884. Given the radical transformation of London since then, we’d hate to see what version they must be on by now…

Bonus words: Gherkin, Shard, Walkie Talkie, Cheese Grater

Not items you’d usually find listed together, these are all names of iconic buildings in the centre of London. Like them or loathe them, these skyscrapers now dominate the London skyline. All have been designed by critically acclaimed architects and feature the latest in construction innovations.

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