The term cockney has had several distinct geographical, social, and linguistic associations. Originally a pejorative term applied to all city-dwellers, it was gradually restricted to Londoners, and particularly to "Bow-bell Cockneys": those born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the Cheapside district of the City of London. It eventually came to be used to refer to those in London's East End, or to all working-class Londoners generally.
Linguistically, cockney English refers to the accent or dialect of English traditionally spoken by working-class Londoners. In the 1980s, some features of cockney became more frequent in broadcasting, and the media began to speak of a new standard called Estuary English, but most linguists rejected this analysis and the term is less frequently used now.
The earliest recorded use of the term is 1362 in passus VI of William Langland's Piers Plowman, where it is used to mean "a small, misshapen egg", from Middle English coken + ey ("a cock's egg"). Concurrently, the mythical land of luxury Cockaigne (attested from 1305) appeared under a variety of spellings—including Cockayne, Cocknay, and Cockney—and became humorously associated with the English capital London.
The present meaning of cockney comes from its use among rural Englishmen (attested in 1520) as a pejorative term for effeminate town-dwellers, from an earlier general sense (encountered in "the Reeve's Tale" of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales c. 1386) of a "cokenay" as "a child tenderly brought up" and, by extension, "an effeminate fellow" or "a milksop". This may have developed from the sources above or separately, alongside such terms as "cock" and "cocker" which both have the sense of "to make a nestle-cock... or darling of", "to indulge or pamper". By 1600, this meaning of cockney was being particularly associated with the Bow Bells area. In 1617, the travel writer Fynes Moryson stated in his Itinerary that "Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys." The same year, John Minsheu included the term in this newly restricted sense in his dictionary Ductor in Linguas. The use of the term to describe all Londoners generally, however, survived into the 19th century before becoming restricted to the working class and their particular accent. The term is now used loosely to describe all East Londoners, although some distinguish the areas (such as Canning Town) that were added to London in 1964.
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The region in which cockneys are thought to reside is not clearly defined. A common view is that in order to be a cockney, one must have been born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow. However, the church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Although the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in the Blitz, they had fallen silent on 13 June 1940 as part of the British anti-invasion preparations of World War II. Before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when, by the "within earshot" definition, no "Bow Bell" cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces other problems, since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would now be born within earshot of the bells, although the Royal London Hospital, Guy's Hospital, Lying-In Hospital and St Thomas' Hospital are within the defined area covered by the sound of the Bow Bells. The closest maternity units would be the City of London Maternity Hospital, Finsbury Square, but this hospital was bombed out during the World War II Blitz, and St Bartholomew's Hospital (or Barts), whose maternity department closed in the late 1980s. The East London Maternity Hospital in Stepney, which was 2.5 miles from St Mary-le-Bow, was in use from 1884 to 1968. There is a maternity unit still in use at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. Home births were very common until the late 1960s.
A study was carried out by the City in 2000 to see how far away Bow Bells could be heard, and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard up to six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as the Highgate Archway (4.5 miles north). The association of cockneys with the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside in the City of London. Thus while all East Enders are cockneys, not all cockneys are East Enders.
The traditional core districts of the East End are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Clerkenwell, Aldgate, Shoreditch, Millwall, Cubitt Town, Hackney, Hoxton, Bow and Mile End. "The Borough" to the south of Waterloo, London and Tower Bridge were also considered cockney before redevelopment all but extinguished the local working-class areas, and now Bermondsey is the only cockney area south of the River Thames, although Pearly Kings and Queens can be found as far out as Peckham and Penge. The area north of the Thames gradually expanded to include East Ham, Stratford, West Ham and Plaistow as more land was built upon. The Becontree estate near Dagenham in Essex was built by the Corporation of London to house poor residents of London's East End on what was previously a rural area of Essex, and Peter Wright wrote that most of the residents identified as cockneys rather than as Essex folk.
- James G. Baily (tailor, later dressmaker, born Percy George Baily, in Canning Town London)
- Danny Baker (broadcaster, born in Deptford)
- Michael Caine (actor, born as Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr., 14 March 1933, in Rotherhithe)
- Charlie Chaplin (comic actor, filmmaker, and composer, 16 April, 1889, born in Walworth, London)
- Chas and Dave (pop duo with a cockney pub singalong style known as "Rockney")
- Danny Dyer, (actor, born in Newham)
- Steve Harley (musician, frontman of the band Cockney Rebel, born in Deptford)
- Hoxton Tom McCourt, musician, face, born in Shoreditch and lived in Hoxton
- Lenny McLean, bare knuckle/unlicensed boxer, actor, born in Hoxton
- Claude Rains, the actor born in Camberwell in 1889 became famous after abandoning his heavy cockney accent and developing a unique Mid-Atlantic accent described as "half American, half English and a little Cockney thrown in".
- Harry Redknapp (former footballer and manager born in Poplar)
- Tommy Steele (1950s pop and film artist, born in Bermondsey)
- Simon Harris, music producer, born in Warren Street London within 2.4 miles of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow.
- The Kray Twins, villains, born in Hoxton and lived in Bethnal Green
- Barbara Windsor actress born in Shoreditch, London
- Ray Winstone (actor, born in Homerton)
- Ian Dury (musician with cockney accent and lyrics based on the East End and Essex. Claimed to be from Upminster but actually from Middlesex)
- Arthur Smith (comedian from Bermondsey)
- Mickey Flanagan (comedian from Whitechapel)
- Bobby George (darts champion born in Manor Park)
- Eric Bristow (darts champion born in Hackney. Nicknamed the "Crafty Cockney" while playing in an American bar with that name)
- Roger Bisby (journalist, born in City of London)
- Dom Littlewood (television presenter, from Southend-on-Sea, evidence of the migration of the accent eastwards along the Thames estuary)
Writing in 1981, the dialectologist Peter Wright gave some examples of then-contemporary Cockney speakers:
- Harry Champion, music-hall singer and comedian
- Henry Cooper, boxer
- Jack Dash, trade unionist
- Warren Mitchell, known for playing Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part. Wright wrote that "the dialect is quite genuine" in the series.
Use in films
- Many of Ken Loach's early films were set in London. Loach has a reputation for using genuine dialect speakers in films:
- Sparrows Can't Sing. The film had to be subtitled when released in the USA owing to difficulties with audience comprehension.
- Bronco Bullfrog
- The Long Good Friday. The DVD of this film has an extra feature that explains the rhyming slang used.
- My Fair Lady
- A Clockwork Orange
- Mary Poppins (and featuring Dick Van Dyke's infamous approximation of a Cockney accent).
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) - Mrs Nellie Lovett and Tobias Ragg have Cockney accents.
Migration and evolution
A dialectological study of Leytonstone in 1964 (then in Essex) found that the area's dialect was very similar to that recorded in Bethnal Green by Eva Sivertsen but there were still some features that distinguished Leytonstone speech from cockney.
Linguistic research conducted in the early 2010s suggests that today, certain elements of cockney English are declining in usage within the East End of London and the accent has migrated to Outer London and the Home Counties. In London's East End, some traditional features of cockney have been displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety popular among young Londoners (sometimes referred to as "Jafaican"), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent. Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalisation of the dark L (and other features of cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage.
An influential July 2010 report by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety, predicted that the cockney accent will disappear from London's streets within 30 years. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said that the accent, which has been around for more than 500 years, is being replaced in London by a new hybrid language. "Cockney in the East End is now transforming itself into Multicultural London English, a new, melting-pot mixture of all those people living here who learnt English as a second language", Prof Kerswill said.
Conversely, migration of cockney speakers has led to migration of the dialect. In Essex, planned towns that grew from post-war migration out of London (e.g. Basildon and Harlow) often have a strong cockney influence on local speech. However, this is, except where least mixed, difficult to discern because of common features: linguistic historian and researcher of early dialects Alexander John Ellis in 1890 stated that cockney developed owing to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech.
The dialect eventually moved out of inner-city London towards the outskirts of suburban London and into the Home Counties - in particular the London Borough of Havering and throughout Essex county. Today Cockney-speaking areas include parts of Ilford, Dagenham, Barking, Billericay, Brentwood, Romford, Chigwell, Cheshunt, Brimsdown, Loughton, Harlow, Basildon, Thurrock.
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Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and occasionally use rhyming slang. The Survey of English Dialects took a recording from a long-time resident of Hackney, and the BBC made another recording in 1999 which showed how the accent had changed.
John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1859, makes reference to "their use of a peculiar slang language" when describing the costermongers of London's East End. In terms of other slang, there are also several borrowings from Yiddish, including kosher (originally Hebrew, via Yiddish, meaning legitimate) and stumm (/ʃtʊm/ originally German, via Yiddish, meaning quiet), as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal), and cushty (Kushty) (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake cockney accent is sometimes called mockney.
- As with many accents of the United Kingdom, cockney is non-rhotic. A final -er is pronounced [ə] or lowered [ɐ] in broad cockney. As with all or nearly all non-rhotic accents, the paired lexical sets COMMA and LETTER, PALM/BATH and START, THOUGHT and NORTH/FORCE, are merged. Thus, the last syllable of words such as cheetah can be pronounced [ɐ] as well in broad cockney.
- Broad /ɑː/ is used in words such as bath, path, demand. This originated in London in the 16th–17th centuries and is also part of Received Pronunciation (RP).
- T-glottalisation: use of the glottal stop as an allophone of /t/ in various positions, including after a stressed syllable. Glottal stops also occur, albeit less frequently for /k/ and /p/, and occasionally for mid-word consonants. For example, Richard Whiteing spelt "Hyde Park" as Hy′ Par′. Like and light can be homophones. "Clapham" can be said as Cla'am (i. e., [ˈkl̥ɛʔm̩]).
- The alveolar stops /t/, /d/ are often omitted in informal cockney, in non-prevocalic environments, including some that cannot be omitted in Received Pronunciation. Examples include [ˈdæzɡənə] Dad's gonna and [ˈtɜːn ˈlef] turn left.
- H-dropping. Sivertsen considers that [h] is to some extent a stylistic marker of emphasis in cockney.
- Diphthong alterations:
- /iː/ → [əi~ɐi]: [bəiʔ] "beet"
- /eɪ/ → [æɪ~aɪ]: [bæɪʔ] "bait"
- /aɪ/ → [ɑɪ] or even [ɒɪ] in "vigorous, dialectal" cockney. The second element may be reduced or absent (with compensatory lengthening of the first element), so that there are variants such as [ɑ̟ə~ɑ̟ː]. This means that pairs such as laugh-life, Barton-biting may become homophones: [lɑːf], [bɑːʔn̩]. But this neutralisation is an optional, recoverable one: [bɑɪʔ] "bite"
- /ɔɪ/ → [ɔ̝ɪ~oɪ]: [ˈtʃʰoɪs] "choice"
- /uː/ → [əʉ] or a monophthongal [ʉː], perhaps with little lip rounding, [ɨː] or [ʊː]: [bʉːʔ] "boot"
- /əʊ/ → this diphthong typically starts in the area of the London /ʌ/, [æ̈~ɐ]. The endpoint may be [ʊ], but more commonly it is rather opener and/or completely unrounded, i.e. [ɤ̈] or [ɤ̝̈]. Thus, the most common variants are [æ̈ɤ̈, æ̈ɤ̝̈, ɐɤ̈] and [ɐɤ̝̈], with [æ̈ʊ] and [ɐʊ] also being possible. The broadest cockney variant approaches [aʊ]. There's also a variant that is used only by women, namely [ɐø ~ œ̈ø]. In addition, there are two monophthongal pronunciations, [ʌ̈ː] as in 'no, nah' and [œ̈], which is used in non-prominent variants. [kʰɐɤ̈ʔ] "coat"
- /ɪə/ and /eə/ have somewhat tenser onsets than in RP: [iə], [ɛ̝ə]
- /ʊə/, according to Wells (1982), is being increasingly merged with /ɔː/ ~ /ɔə/.
- /aʊ/ may be [æʊ] or [æə].
- /ɪə/, /eə/, /ʊə/, /ɔə/ and /aʊ/ can be monophthongised to [ɪː], [ɛː], [ʊː] (if it doesn't merge with /ɔː/ ~ /ɔə/), [ɔː] and [æː] ~ [aː]. Wells (1982) states that "no rigid rules can be given for the distribution of monophthongal and diphthongal variants, though the tendency seems to be for the monophthongal variants to be commonest within the utterance, but the diphthongal realisations in utterance-final position, or where the syllable in question is otherwise prominent."
- Triphthongal realizations [ɪi̯ɐ̯, ɛi̯ə̯, ɔu̯ə̯, æi̯ə̯] of /iə, eə, ɔə, æʊ/ are also possible, and are regarded as "very strongly Cockney". Among these, the triphthongal realization of /ɔə/ occurs most commonly. There is not a complete agreement about the distribution of these; according to Wells (1982), they "occur in sentence-final position", whereas according to Mott (2012), these are "most common in final position".
- Other vowel differences include
- /æ/ may be [ɛ] or [ɛɪ], with the latter occurring before voiced consonants, particularly before /d/: [bɛk] "back", [bɛːɪd] "bad"
- /ɛ/ may be [eə], [eɪ], or [ɛɪ] before certain voiced consonants, particularly before /d/: [beɪd] "bed"
- /ɒ/ may be a somewhat less open [ɔ]: [kʰɔʔ] "cot"
- /ɑː/ has a fully back variant, qualitatively equivalent to cardinal 5, which Beaken (1971) claims characterises "vigorous, informal" cockney.
- /ɜː/ is on occasion somewhat fronted and/or lightly rounded, giving cockney variants such as [ɜ̟ː], [œ̈ː].
- /ʌ/ → [ɐ̟] or a quality like that of cardinal 4, [a]: [dʒamʔˈtˢapʰ] "jumped up"
- /ɔː/ → [oː] or a closing diphthong of the type [oʊ~ɔo] when in non-final position, with the latter variants being more common in broad cockney: [soʊs] "sauce"-"source", [loʊd] "lord", [ˈwoʊʔə] "water"
- /ɔː/ → [ɔː] or a centring diphthong/triphthong of the type [ɔə~ɔuə] when in final position, with the latter variants being more common in broad cockney; thus [sɔə] "saw"-"sore"-"soar", [lɔə] "law"-"lore", [wɔə] "war"-"wore". The diphthong is retained before inflectional endings, so that board and pause can contrast with bored [bɔəd] and paws [pʰɔəz]. /ɔə/ has a somewhat tenser onset than the cardinal /ɔ/, that is [ɔ̝ə].
- /əʊ/ becomes something around [ɒʊ~ɔo] or even [aɤ] in broad cockney before dark l. These variants are retained when the addition of a suffix turns the dark l clear. Thus a phonemic split has occurred in London English, exemplified by the minimal pair wholly [ˈhɒʊli] vs. holy [ˈhɐɤ̈li]. The development of L-vocalisation (see next section) leads to further pairs such as sole-soul [sɒʊ] vs. so-sew [sɐɤ̈], bowl [bɒʊ] vs. Bow [bɐɤ̈], shoulder [ˈʃɒʊdə] vs. odour [ˈɐɤ̈də], while associated vowel neutralisations may make doll a homophone of dole, compare dough [dɐɤ̈]. All this reinforces the phonemic nature of the opposition and increases its functional load. It is now well-established in all kinds of London-flavoured accents, from broad cockney to near-RP.
- /ʊ/ in some words (particularly good) is central [ʊ̈]. In other cases, it is near-close near-back [ʊ], as in traditional RP.
- Vocalisation of dark L, hence [ˈmɪowɔː] for Millwall. The actual realisation of a vocalised /l/ is influenced by surrounding vowels and it may be realised as [u], [ʊ], [o] or [ɤ]. It is also transcribed as a semivowel [w] by some linguists, e.g., Coggle and Rosewarne. However, according to Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), the vocalised dark l is sometimes an unoccluded lateral approximant, which differs from the RP [ɫ] only by the lack of the alveolar contact. Relatedly, there are many possible vowel neutralisations and absorptions in the context of a following dark L ([ɫ]) or its vocalised version; these include:
- In broad cockney, and to some extent in general popular London speech, a vocalised /l/ is entirely absorbed by a preceding /ɔː/: e.g., salt and sort become homophones (although the contemporary pronunciation of salt /sɒlt/ would prevent this from happening), and likewise fault-fought-fort, pause-Paul's, Morden-Malden, water-Walter. Sometimes such pairs are kept apart, in more deliberate speech at least, by a kind of length difference: [ˈmɔʊdn̩] Morden vs. [ˈmɔʊːdn̩] Malden.
- A preceding /ə/ is also fully absorbed into vocalised /l/. The reflexes of earlier /əl/ and earlier /ɔː(l)/ are thus phonetically similar or identical; speakers are usually ready to treat them as the same phoneme. Thus awful can best be regarded as containing two occurrences of the same vowel, /ˈɔːfɔː/. The difference between musical and music-hall, in an H-dropping broad cockney, is thus nothing more than a matter of stress and perhaps syllable boundaries.
- With the remaining vowels a vocalised /l/ is not absorbed, but remains phonetically present as a back vocoid in such a way that /Vl/ and /V/ are kept distinct.
- The clearest and best-established neutralisations are those of /ɪ~iː~ɪə/ and /ʊ~uː~ʊə/. Thus rill, reel and real fall together in cockney as [ɹɪɤ]; while full and fool are [foʊ~fʊu] and may rhyme with cruel [ˈkʰɹʊu]. Before clear (i.e., prevocalic) /l/ the neutralisations do not usually apply, thus [ˈsɪli] silly but [ˈsɪilɪn] ceiling-sealing, [ˈfʊli] fully but [ˈfʊulɪn] fooling.
- In some broader types of cockney, the neutralisation of /ʊ~uː~ʊə/ before non-prevocalic /l/ may also involve /ɔː/, so that fall becomes homophonous with full and fool [fɔo].
- The other pre-/l/ neutralisation which all investigators agree on is that of /æ~eɪ~aʊ/. Thus, Sal and sale can be merged as [sæɤ], fail and fowl as [fæɤ], and Val, vale-veil and vowel as [væɤ]. The typical pronunciation of railway is [ˈɹæʊwæɪ].
- According to Siversten, /ɑː/ and /aɪ/ can also join in this neutralisation. They may on the one hand neutralise with respect to one another, so that snarl and smile rhyme, both ending [-ɑɤ], and Child's Hill is in danger of being mistaken for Charles Hill; or they may go further into a fivefold neutralisation with the one just mentioned, so that pal, pale, foul, snarl and pile all end in [-æɤ]. But these developments are evidently restricted to broad cockney, not being found in London speech in general.
- A neutralisation discussed by Beaken (1971) and Bowyer (1973), but ignored by Siversten (1960), is that of /ɒ~əʊ~ʌ/. It leads to the possibility of doll, dole and dull becoming homophonous as [dɒʊ] or [da̠ɤ]. Wells' impression is that the doll-dole neutralisation is rather widespread in London, but that involving dull less so.
- One further possible neutralisation in the environment of a following non-prevocalic /l/ is that of /ɛ/ and /ɜː/, so that well and whirl become homophonous as [wɛʊ].
- Cockney has been occasionally described as replacing /ɹ/ with /w/. For example, thwee (or fwee) instead of three, fwasty instead of frosty. Peter Wright, a Survey of English Dialects fieldworker, concluded that this was not a universal feature of cockneys but that it was more common to hear this in the London area than anywhere else in Britain. This description may also be a result of mishearing the labiodental R as /w/, when it is still a distinct phoneme in cockney.
- An unstressed final -ow may be pronounced [ə]. In broad cockney this can be lowered to [ɐ]. This is common to most traditional, Southern English dialects except for those in the West Country.
- Grammatical features:
- Use of me instead of my, for example, "At's me book you got 'ere". It cannot be used when "my" is emphasised; e.g., "At's my book you got 'ere" (and not "their").
- Use of ain't
- Use of double negatives, for example "I didn't see nuffink".
By the 1980s and 1990s, most of the features mentioned above had partly spread into more general south-eastern speech, giving the accent called Estuary English; an Estuary speaker will use some but not all of the cockney sounds.
The cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. For example, in 1909 the Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools issued by the London County Council, stating that "the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire". Others defended the language variety: "The London dialect is really, especially on the South side of the Thames, a perfectly legitimate and responsible child of the old kentish tongue [...] the dialect of London North of the Thames has been shown to be one of the many varieties of the Midland or Mercian dialect, flavoured by the East Anglian variety of the same speech". Since then, the cockney accent has been more accepted as an alternative form of the English language rather than an inferior one. In the 1950s, the only accent to be heard on the BBC (except in entertainment programmes such as The Sooty Show) was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including cockney or accents heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC. In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by Coolbrands in the autumn of 2008, cockney was voted equal fourth coolest accent in Britain with 7% of the votes, while The Queen's English was considered the coolest, with 20% of the votes. Brummie was voted least popular, receiving just 2%. The cockney accent often featured in films produced by Ealing Studios and was frequently portrayed as the typical British accent in movies by Walt Disney.
Studies have indicated that the heavy use of South East England accents on television and radio may be the cause of the spread of cockney English since the 1960s. Cockney is more and more influential and some claim that in the future many features of the accent may become standard.
Studies have indicated that working-class adolescents in areas such as Glasgow have begun to use certain aspects of cockney and other Anglicisms in their speech. infiltrating the traditional Glasgow patter. For example, TH-fronting is commonly found, and typical Scottish features such as the postvocalic /r/ are reduced. Research suggests the use of English speech characteristics is likely to be a result of the influence of London and South East England accents featuring heavily on television, such as the popular BBC One soap opera Eastenders. However, such claims have been criticised.
Certain features of cockney – Th-fronting, L-vocalisation, T-glottalisation, and the fronting of the GOAT and GOOSE vowels – have spread across the south-east of England and, to a lesser extent, to other areas of Britain. However, Clive Upton has noted that these features have occurred independently in some other dialects, such as TH-fronting in Yorkshire and L-vocalisation in parts of Scotland.
The term Estuary English has been used to describe London pronunciations that are slightly closer to RP than cockney. The variety first came to public prominence in an article by David Rosewarne in the Times Educational Supplement in October 1984. Rosewarne argued that it may eventually replace Received Pronunciation in the south-east. The phonetician John C. Wells collected media references to Estuary English on a website. Writing in April 2013, Wells argued that research by Joanna Przedlacka "demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently".
- Cockney Wanker
- Estuary English
- Languages of the United Kingdom
- List of British regional nicknames
- London slang
- Possessive me
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A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called Neighing, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to shew he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the Cock Neighs?
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