Prep school children more likely to talk in Cockney than the Queen’s English

30 January 2019

Far from being the Queen’s English, prep school language shows that it has its origins in Cockney Rhyming Slang, research from the University of Buckingham reveals.

The new findings, by Professorial Research Fellow in Humanities at the University of Buckingham, Graeme Davis, show children have been making up language for decades to deliberately confuse parents and teachers.

Links to Cockney rhyming slang and the language of criminals are highlighted by Graeme Davis. The research, published in the Buckingham Journal of Language and Linguistics, analyses Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge, a 1940s Prep School teacher. It provides the first evidence of post-war English in prep schools which reveals for the first time it is not class-related. 

Children were brought together from a variety of backgrounds following the Second World War, which meant that children from upper-class backgrounds socialised with those from middle and lower class.

The children in the novel use the same techniques found in Cockney Rhyming Slang to develop nicknames for their classmates: “His name’s Temple, and his initials are CAT, so naturally we call him Dog… It’s a bit of a sweat calling him Dog so we call him Dogsbody for short… Bod short for Dogsbody.” The term “bottle” is also Cockney Rhyming Slang for a policeman. Cockney Rhyming Slang was originally created in the East End to confuse and obscure what is being said from outsiders, sometimes by criminals. Prep School children have continued the tradition.

The students in the novel create names for the teachers which they imagine they won’t understand. The Headmaster ends up with the nickname ‘The Beak’ – slang for a nose and presumably a physical description. Teacher, Mr Carter, is called Benedict by the children, as he always says Grace in Latin before meals: “Benedictis, benedicat”, “May the Blessed One give a blessing”, while one of the younger teachers, Mr Wilkinson, receives the nickname Old Wilkie.

 The research reveals children’s language frequently uses intensifiers, words used to exaggerate, and this can be seen in the book when Jennings is for the football team and exclaims “Oh, hefty ziggerty door knobs!”

 Graeme Davis said: “We might expect children at English Preparatory Schools in the post-war years to have an upper-class language register. They don’t. Instead we see a levelled form of language which includes all social classes including London Cockney, the slang of soldiers in two world wars and the jargon of criminals. What we are seeing in Jennings Goes to School is a language register which is more equal, reflecting the more equal society that was created in the UK following the Second World War.”

Barnaby Lenon, the new Dean of the University of Buckingham School of Education, says that Estuary English is still popular today because some people who were public-school educated want to appear less upper class than they are. He said: “Being posh these days is not always perceived to be a good thing. There has long been a tendency for schoolchildren at private schools to adopt their own language and certainly with an emphasis on mockney. It continues into adult life. If you are in politics, for instance, you want to appear to be a man of the people.”