the uncertain origin of the word ‘cockney’


Cheapside and Bow Church - 1837

Cheapside and Bow Church – 1837
image: FamilySearch/Nathan W. Murphy





The following definition of cockney is from An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (5th edition – London, 1731), by the English philologist and lexicographer Nathan Bailey (died 1742):

a Nickname given to one who is born and bred in the City of London, or within the Sound of Bow-Bell*; also a Foundling Child born in the City.

(* the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the eastern Cheapside district of the City of London)

In A Dictionary of English Etymology (London, 1859), the British philologist Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-91) gave the following definition:

The original meaning of cockney is a child too tenderly or delicately nurtured, one kept in the house and not hardened by out-of-doors life; hence applied to citizens, as opposed to the hardier inhabitants of the country, and in modern times confined to the citizens of London.




In the sense of a native of London, cockney is apparently not the same word as a Middle-English noun denoting an egg of the common fowl, or perhaps one of the small or misshapen eggs occasionally laid by fowls, which have long been popularly called cocks’ eggs (in German Hahneneier). For example, in The Vocabulary of East Anglia (London, 1830), the English philologist Robert Forby (1759-1825) wrote:

Cock’s-egg: an abortive egg, without a yolk.

This noun cockney is from Middle English cokeney or cokenay, apparently composed of coken, meaning of cocks, and ey or ay (from Old English æg), meaning egg. The word therefore would literally mean cocks’ egg.

(The use of the genitive plural coken is as in German Hühnerei, fowls’ egg, and Hahnenei, cocks’ egg.)

In the sense of a hen’s eggcockney is first recorded in The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, an alliterative poem from the late 14th century attributed to William Langland:

‘I have no peny,’ quod Piers, ‘pulettes to bugge,
Neither gees ne grys, but two grene cheses,
A fewe cruddes and creme and [a cake of otes],
And two loves of benes and bran ybake for my fauntes.
And yet I seye, by my soule, I have no salt bacon
Ne no cokeney, by Crist, coloppes to maken!’
     in contemporary English:
‘I have no penny,’ quoth Piers, ‘pullets for to buy,
Nor neither geese nor pigs, but two green cheeses,
A few curds and cream and an oaten cake,
And two loaves of beans and bran baked for my youngsters.
And yet I say, by my soul, I have no salt bacon;
Nor no hen’s eggs, by Christ, collops for to make.’

(Here, collop denotes an egg fried on bacon.)

But cockney in its current sense is apparently a different word. It originally denoted a pampered child, hence a squeamish or effeminate fellow, a milksop, a weakling.

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) used the word in the latter sense in The Reeve’s Tale:

This John lith stille a furlong wey or two,
And to hymself he maketh routhe and wo.
“Allas!” quod he, “this is a wikked jape;
Now may I seyn that I is but an ape.
Yet has my felawe somwhat for his harm;
He has the milleris doghter in his arm.
He auntred hym, and has his nedes sped,
And I lye as a draf-sak in my bed;
And when this jape is tald another day,
I sal been halde a daf, a cokenay!
I wil arise and auntre it, by my fayth!
‘Unhardy is unseely,’ thus men sayth.”
     in contemporary English:
John lay still for about five minutes or so, and pities himself, and feels woeful. “Alas!” he said, “this is a wicked trick. I would say now that I am just a fool. Yet my friend has gained something for his trouble; he has the Miller’s daughter in his arms. He took a risk and has accomplished his purpose, and I lie here like a sack of chaff in my bed; and when this prank is retold another day, I shall be thought a fool, a weakling. I will rise and risk it, by my faith! ‘One who is not bold is not lucky!’ as they say.”

The English-Latin dictionary Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum (Storehouse for Children or Clerics – around 1440) thus defined cockney:

Kokeney. Carinutus, coconellus, vel cucunellus; et hec duo nomina sunt ficta, et derisorie dicta; delicius.

The word carinutus is a diminutive of carusdear, darlingdelicius means an object of affectioncoconellus and its variant cucunellus are mere terms of endearment, so that the definition can be translated as:

Cockney. Little darling, pet, or poppet; and these two words are insincere, and said derisively; pampered child.

Similarly, in the chapter Good Motherly Nursery of A Hundred good Points of Huswifery (1561?), the English poet and writer on agriculture Thomas Tusser (circa 1524-1580) wrote:

(1812 edition)
Some cockneys with cocking, are made very fools,
Fit neither for ’prentice, for plough, nor for schools.

Here, the verb to cock is a variant of to cocker (also to cockle), meaning to pamperto treat with excessive tenderness or care. (This English verb is perhaps related to the Dutch (Flemish) verb keukelen, meaning to pamper.)

One theory is therefore that cockney was derived from to cocker or to cock as in the previous passage. This verb is in turn perhaps derived from the noun cock in the sense of a fowl with the notion of making a nestle-cock of a child (a nestle-cock is the last-hatched bird of a brood, the weakling of a brood, and, figuratively, a mother’s pet, a spoilt or delicate child or youth.)

Another theory is that cockney is from the obsolete French verb coqueliner, thus defined by Randle Cotgrave in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):

Coqueliner vn enfant. To dandle, cocker, fedle [= cosset], pamper, make a wanton of, a child.

Louis Chambaud and J. Th. H. Des Carrières wrote, in Nouveau dictionnaire françois-anglois (London, 1805):

Coqueliner (pour exprimer le son du coq [= to express the cock’s sound]) To call, to chack. Coqueliner un enfant: to dandle, to cocker, to pamper a child.

About this French verb, the antiquary, poet, composer and lexicographer Samuel Pegge (1733-1800) wrote, in Anecdotes of the English Language: chiefly regarding the local dialect of London and its Environs (London, 1803):

The participle passive of this verb will therefore be “Coqueline,” which by no great violence may, I think, be reduced to “Coquené;” for, in pronunciation, the penultimate syllable (li) will easily melt in the mouth, and accord, in our spelling, with the word Cockney.

In the above-mentioned etymological dictionary, Hensleigh Wedgwood also writes that coqueliner “leads us in the right direction”.

According to another theory, cockney was derived from French coquin, meaning beggar, wretch, rogue, vagabond. This was already mentioned in 1731 by Nathan Bailey in his etymological dictionary:

Cockney (some derive it from the Tale of a Citizen’s Son, who knew not the Language of a Cock, but called it Neighing [see footnote]; others from being Cockered; others of Coquin, French a slothful Person, the Citizens generally leading a less active Life than Country People)

In An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (London, 1921), the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954) wrote:

In the sense of milksop, later townsman, and eventually (c. 1600) Londoner, it [= cockney] is from an Eastern form (Old French -ei) of French acoquiné, made into a coquin, a word of unknown origin.

This was also the most probable origin according to The Century Dictionary (New York, 1904):

The only solution of cockney phonetically satisfactory is historically unsupported, namely, from an unattested Old French coquiné (unattested Medieval Latin coquinatus), taken in some such sense as a vagabond who hangs around the kitchen, or a child brought up in the kitchen, or a child fed in the kitchen, a pampered child. The word would then be closely connected with Old French coquiner, to beg […], from Latin coquinare, to serve in a kitchen, to cook (hence the possible later sense of to hang about a kitchen), from coquina, a kitchen, […], from coquus, a cook.

(However, French etymologists now doubt that coquin was derived from Latin coquina; its origin remains unclear.)

Interestingly, in his bilingual dictionary, Randle Cotgrave thus defined the feminine of coquin:

Coquine. A begger-woman; also, a cockney, simperdecockit [= coquette], nice thing.

This is because one the meanings of cockney was a dainty, affected woman. It was similarly used as an adjective meaning daintydelicate; for example, the following is from Leicestershire Words, Phrases, and Proverbs (London, 1881), by Arthur Evans and Sebastian Evans:

‘Shay’s [= she’s] a cockney little thing, shay woon’t ate [= she won’t eat] no fat.’



note: this refers to what Samuel Pegge, in the above-mentioned book, called

the vulgar and received opinion, as delivered by story-tellers vivâ-voce, […] that the word is compounded of Cock and neigh; for that, once upon a time, a true-born and true-bred Londoner went into the country, and, on first hearing a horse neigh, cried out—“How the horse laughs!” but, being told that the noise made by the Horse was called neighing, he stood corrected. In the morning, when the cock crew, the Cit immediately exclaimed, with confident conviction, that the cock neighed!

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