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Crystal’s Adventures in a Cockney Wonderland
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Cockney Rhyming Slang

Crystal’s Adventures in a Cockney Wonderland

By Lewis Carroll, translated into Cockney Rhyming Slang by Charlie Lovett

First edition, 2015. Illustrations by John Tenniel. Portlaoise: Evertype. ISBN 978-1-78201-115-6 (paperback), price: €12.95, £10.95, $15.95.

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“In that direction,” the Ball of Fat rabbited, waving its Isle of Wight paw hare and hound, “take and gives a Ball and Batter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “take and gives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mum and dad.”   “In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw around, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to scarper among mum and dad people,” Crystal remarked.   “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” rabbited the Ball of Fat: “we’re all mum and dad here. I’m mum and dad. You’re mum and dad.”   “Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mum and dad?” rabbited Crystal.   “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” rabbited the Ball of Fat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”   “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn't have come here.”
Cockney Rhyming Slang, as anyone who has stood at the till in a London souvenir shop could tell you, is a set of slang expressions based on taking the original word (say, stairs) and rhyming it with the final word of a short phrase (apples and pears), and then, in some cases, shortening the new expression (apples). This can lead to a sentence such as: “Careful you don’t slip and fall down the apples”. While the slang is often cited as the “secret language” of the Cockney population of London, many of its expression have entered into general usage, not just in the UK, but throughout the English-speaking world.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, “the earliest explicit reference” to rhyming slang recorded is in John Camden Hotten’s 1859 work, The Slang Dictionary. In the records of Charles Dodgson’s library (see Lewis Carroll Among his Books) we see that he quite likely owned a copy of this book, so it is worth taking a closer look at the section that might have introduced Dodgson to rhyming slang. Hotten’s book includes a four-page article on what he calls “The Rhyming Slang”, together with a glossary of nearly 150 terms, many of which are still included in current lists of Cockney Rhyming Slang and more than twenty of which are used in this translation. In his description of the cant and its users, Hotten writes:

    There exists in London a singular tribe of men, known amongst the ‘fraternity of vagabonds’ as chaunters and patterers. Both classes are great talkers. . . .

    They are quite a different tribe from the costermongers; indeed, amongst tramps they term themselves the ‘haristocrats of the streets’, and boast that they live by their intellects. Like the costermongers, however, they have a secret tongue or Cant speech known only to each other. This Cant . . . is known in Seven Dials and elsewhere as the Rhyming Slang, or the substitution of words and sentences which rhyme with other words intended to be kept secret. . . .

    The numerous allusions in the Glossary to well-known places in London, shew that this rude speech was mainly concocted in the metropolis.

Writing in 1858, Hotten remarks that the rhyming slang is then “twelve or fifteen” years old. Dodgson owned at least one other book that alludes to rhyming slang, without giving details, Henry Mayhew’s landmark study London Labour and the London Poor (1851). “The new style of cadger’s cant is done all on the rhyming principle”, writes Mayhew. While later editions of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable included expressions identified as rhyming slang, the third edition, which Dodgson owned, seems not to have included any of these.

So, Dodgson certainly could have known of rhyming slang; if he did he would likely have been of two minds. On the one hand Dodgson was a lover of word games, and had a particular affinity for inventing games that involved trans­forming one word into another. On the other hand, the lower class nature of rhyming slang, and particularly the frequent coarseness of the rhymes would have caused Dodgson to be disinterested at best, and deeply offended at worst.

Dodgson was a great inventor of word games, his most popular being a word linking game originally called “Word-Links” which he later published (both as a weekly column in Vanity Fair and in book form) as Doublets. Doublets requires the player to link two words of the same length with a string of intermediary words, each of which changes only a single letter. Like Cockney Rhyming Slang, Doublets transforms one English word into another, as does Dodgson’s related game Syzygies. Doublets and Syzygies were both published widely and played publicly in the pages of Vanity Fair and The Lady, so the notion of a massive multi-player word game that translated one English word into another clearly appealed to Dodgson. While he may have looked down on Cockney Rhyming Slang, if he in fact knew of it, he nonetheless understood the pleasure of such a game. I leave the reader with two challenges that combine Dodgson’s own word game Doublets with Cockney Rhyming Slang. For any word in Rhyming Slang that has the same number of letters as the word it replaces (say, for instance Feet and Dogs), create a word chain in the style of Dodgson’s Doublets linking the two. For example:


Some other pairs from the glossary of the present work you might try (and for which I can offer no solution myself) are: BIRDS/KNEES, CAKE/SWAN, CUP/DOG, HEAD/LOAF, HOME/POPE, MOUTH/NORTH, NOSE/RUBY. PAPER/LINEN. And if you really want a challenge, try APPLES/STAIRS, BONKERS/MARBLES, GLOVES/TURTLE, or KETTLE/HANSEL.

For the reader’s second challenge, I ask simply for solu­tions to the Ball and Batter’s Alice Liddell (made possible only by my own shameless invention of new rhymes). Certainly the fact that both could be found within both the College and Cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford, would have appealed to Dodgson.

Notes on this Translation

Clearly, this is not a translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the purest sense. It is, rather, the result of a linguistic game—another sort of translation. What Dodgson would have loved most about Cockney Rhyming Slang, and what makes it suited for application to Alice, is that it is, as John Ayto writes in his introduction to The Oxford Diction­ary of Rhyming Slang, “all really part of a giant ongoing word game, whose product is much more droll artefact that linguists’ lexeme”. It is with this idea of Cockney Rhyming Slang as word game, and with the goal of creating “droll artefact”, that I have approached this translation.

Like most (some would say all) languages, the vocabulary of Cockney Rhyming Slang is more limited than that of English, so rather than try to simply replace words that appear in the various lexicons of Cockney Rhyming Slang, I have also translated some synonyms and near synonyms. For instance, the English word talk is translated rabbit and pork, and generally shortened to rabbit. I have also used rabbit for words such as speak and say.

In translating more generally like this, some of the nuance of both languages is inevitably lost. In English, we under­stand the subtle difference between speak and say, for instance; in Cockney Rhyming Slang, rabbit often means to rattle on, not simply to speak. However, translation inevitably requires a compromise between the two languages with different sets of subtleties, and so I am not too bothered by this.

In fact, the occasional loss of subtlety is one of many things I am not too bothered by, because my goal has been to play the game. Whenever I can translate a word, I have generally done so. This means that I have adapted various linguistic peculiarities of English written language and speech. Homophones, for instance, I have often translated with the same slang expression, even when the words have different meaning. For instance this and that, is Cockney Rhyming Slang for bat, as in a cricket bat; I have shamelessly used it to refer to the flying mammal. Why have I done this? Because it’s more fun than leaving the word un-translated, and a game is supposed to be fun. I have indicated in the glossary when the primary Cockney Rhyming Slang meaning of a rhyme is different than the application used in this translation.

When a common word (such as over or go) has two different meanings, I have sometimes chosen (for clarity, if there is such a thing) to translate only the meaning which corre­sponds to the Cockney meaning and leave the other unmolested. In the case of these two words, for instance, over becomes Chatham and Dover when it means ‘finished’ but not when it means ‘across’; go becomes scarper when it indicates movement but not in other cases such as ‘go on’, meaning, ‘keep talking’.

This brings up the subject of my using scarper for go. While Cockney Rhyming Slang purist may prefer Scapa, for Scapa Flow, which was in fact probably a reference to the pre-existing scarper, a much older term probably derived from the Italian scappare ‘escape’, I have found scarper more elegant, especially when adapted into other forms. Scarpering, for instance, is less awkward than scapaing.

I have also imposed rhymes within some longer words: for instance, the rhyme for cat, being ball of fat, I have christened the Caterpillar as the Ball of Fat-erpillar. Similarly the Dormouse becomes the Dor-Maxwell House. Not only is this great fun, but it provides an opportunity for the typically Carrollian overuse of hyphens. I like to think Dodgson would approve.

In dealing with past tenses, participles, adverbial construc­tions, and so on, I have been liberal in my adaptation of Cockney Rhyming Slang. For instance, Bo Peep is Rhyming Slang for sleep, but I have adapted it as Bo-Peepy (sleepy), a-Bo Peep (asleep), and Bo-Peeping (sleeping). While these terms might not be heard on the streets of London, I find them, in Alice’s words, “nice grand words to say”, and, again, this approach has allowed me to translate many words that would otherwise have been left in dreary old English.

In some cases there exist multiple rhymes for a single word. In these situations, I have chosen a single rhyme to use throughout my text. In choosing a particular rhyme among several I have tried to shy away from coarser rhymes and given priority, when possible, to older rhymes or rhymes that seem particularly suited to Carroll’s text. Other times I’ve just picked my favourite.

One question that is sometimes unclear in Cockney Rhyming Slang is when the rhyme is shortened to its initial component. The general rule seems to be that the more common and well-established rhymes (loaf of bread for head is a classic example) are shortened (in this case to loaf). My rule has been that if I could find any source that cites a shortened version of the rhyme, I have shortened the rhyme. Otherwise I have left the full phrase. I have indicated in the glossary not only the source for each rhyme, but also the source for shortening a particular rhyme.

Some words in Alice that did not have rhymes in Cockney Rhyming Slang proved too great a temptation for me, and so, as a participant in this great “ongoing word game”, I have invented a few new rhymes. I could not resist making the Dodo into Quasimodo or the Duck into a Bit of Luck, and of course Alice herself very nicely becomes Crystal (Palace). Many of these new rhymes have a Carrollian connection, thus bark becomes hunt the snark, riddle becomes Alice Liddell, and trees (and also ‘wood’) becomes Croft-on-Tees, the town in Yorkshire where Dodgson’s family lived for many years.

The verses have presented their own peculiar challenge, and here I have been much more liberal in my use of invented rhymes. I felt that, even in translation, the verses still needed to function as verses—thus I have preserved the original meter and rhyme schemes. After all, how can a translation based on rhyming ignore the rhyming in the original? To make this happen I have done two things: first, I have frequently shortened rhymes that are not generally shortened; second, I have invented many new rhymes for use in specific verses only. These new rhymes, which I have often shortened, are listed in the glossary, for those wishing to back-translate the verses. For those who feel that a poet should not invent words, I refer you to the poems “Jabberwocky” and “The Hunting of the Snark”. While Dodgson’s game of word invention was more often “port-manteau”, he nonetheless engaged in the same sort of creation in his poems as I have done in the verses here. Like any translator of rhymed, metric poetry, I have been forced to paraphrase and make subtle changes in meaning in order to preserve the meter and the rhyme scheme.

The result of all this, especially in the verses but certainly in the text as well, is often, if not always, total nonsense, and it is this very fact that makes a Cockney Rhyming Slang translation of Alice so appropriate, for Alice is first and foremost a work of logical nonsense, and what could be more fun than applying a logical word game like Cockney Rhyming Slang in such a way that the text of Alice becomes more nonsensical than ever before.

Oats and Barley Heavens Abovett
Winston-Salem 2015

HTML Michael Everson, Evertype, 73 Woodgrove, Portlaoise, R32 ENP6, Ireland, R32 ENP6, Ireland, 2015-07-31

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