Talking about Talking

‘He pontificates, and she rabbits on,’ said my friend witheringly, by way of explaining why he would not be having dinner with a certain couple we know.

I grinned in delight at the precision, the graphicness, the concision: he bang hit the nail on the head about the people in question. But look how easy English makes it.

We have a massive number of words and phrases for expressing nuances or distinctions in the way people speak.

But the really fascinating thing is how, in one ordinary sentence, you can use two verbs from the opposite ends of the register and from completely different provenances. Latin and Cockney Rhyming Slang in one breath? Wow.

‘Pontificate’ derives from Latin, ultimately from the word for priest, pontifex (which very interestingly means bridge-maker.)  In Medieval Latin, pontificare means to officiate as a pontiff, to celebrate pontifical mass; and to speak or express opinions in a pompous or dogmatic way.

But what about ‘rabbit on’, meaning to talk in a noisy, excited, often incomprehensible way? What’s with the rabbit?

Here’s what I found:

In Cockney Rhyming Slang, ‘rabbit and pork’ means ‘talk’.

The really fun thing about rhyming slang is that the actual rhyming word is dropped, hence rabbit = talk.  Rhyming Slang is thought to have been a secret language used by the underworld in London.

‘Rabbit and pork’ is a fairly recent coinage, first recorded in the 1940s, and like many rhyming slang expressions that have entered the mainstream,  seems to have been widely disseminated via TV comedy shows.

So now you know.



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9 Responses

  1. Clearly I need to do more reading about Cockney Rhyming Slang! I LOVE the opening line. I have some students who pontificate and rabbit on (sometimes simultaneously). Keep ’em coming, these posts!

  2. You had me at “pontificates” and as another word lover. I too, marvel at English. As a younger woman, i used to long for the idea of language purity as laid out by the French and the Irish but have now down a 180 degree shift. The history you experience as you consider word meanings is itself a delight and that’s before you realize what some of these words actually mean. On the rhyming slang, I had no idea what you meant when I first read this blogpost and then encountered the word “Barclays” as a definition for an act of lewd self occupation. It turned out the rhyming word was “bank” and so Barclays (bank) —-> meant wank. I died laughing. Enjoyed this post so much.

  3. This was an enjoyable read. I have an acquaintance who will say, “she’s stuck on transmit,” a line I borrowed for one of my stories. I’d love for you to do another post with examples of rhyming slang–secret language indeed!

  4. Oh how I loved this! I love words. I love alternate meanings, I love riddles, I love the history. . . I just love, love, LOVE language. My English kin have used enough rhyming slang (not sure how it got to the West Midlands from London, but there you have it), so now I’m goaded to investigate some of the origins of the terms and phrases my family has used for years. I have to share one quick story about how easily rhyming slang could be misunderstood. My grandfather’s brother was a shoemaker – a cobbler. Well, “cobblers” is also a male anatomical reference in rhyming slang. I was in college before I realized that when my kin referred to “cobblers” they weren’t necessarily speaking pejoratively about Uncle Fred. OOPS!

    Thank you for sharing this!

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