Rhyming Slang For Four By Twos

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 24, 2010, issue of December 03, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Forward reader Susan Hessel writes:

“I am reading a book called ‘The Report,’ a novel based on an incident in a London bomb shelter in 1943. In the book, Jews, particularly Jewish refugees, are referred to as ‘four-by-twos.’ Although this is apparently Cockney rhyming slang, I have never heard the expression before and wonder what it means. Do you know anything about its origins?”

KURT HOFFMAN

Although it has several possible origins, “four-by-two” indeed refers to a Jew in Cockney rhyming slang, which is a way of coining slang words that originated among working-class, mid-19th-century Londoners and is still largely associated with London speech. In it, a standard English word is first rhymed with two or more other standard words — “money” with “bees and honey,” for example, or “head” with “loaf of bread” — and the rhyming component of the rhyming phrase is then dropped, so that “bees” becomes a slang word for “money,” and “loaf” becomes one for “head.”

The idea behind this is similar to that of all slang — namely, to create words used or understood by an in-group and not by others. Unlike most slang, though, Cockney rhyming slang has clear and easily obeyed rules for the coining of new words, so that while these may come and go, as slang terms generally do, the method of forming them remains the same and continues to be productive. Thus, for instance, ears in contemporary rhyming slang are known as “Britneys” after the singer Britney Spears.

“Two,” of course, rhymes with “Jew,” and just as money is “bees” and head is “loaf,” so Jews were generally known in rhyming slang not as “four-by-twos,” but as “four-bys” or “four-bes.” Eric Partridge’s monumental “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” gives this derivation for the term: “1. An army biscuit; military; from ca. 1912…. Ex [deriving from] four-by-two, a rifle pull-through (of that size in inches). 2. A Jew: Cockney soldiers’ rhyming slang: 1914.”

A pull-through, commonly known today in America as a bore snake, was a simple device for cleaning a rifle. The British army used it in both World War I and World War II, until it was replaced by a metal rod that came in easily assembled sections. The pull-through consisted of a narrow cord, at one end of which was a metal weight, and at the other end, a doubled section or loop into which a piece of abrasive gauze was fitted. When cleaning his rifle, a soldier dropped the weighted end down the bore so that it emerged at the rifle’s opened breech, and then, holding it, pulled the cord after it so that the gauze was pressed against the bore’s sides and removed dirt and grease as it passed through. When I was a reservist in the Israel army in the 1970s and ’80s, we used a patch of flannelette instead of gauze.

What does this have to do with “four-by-twos”? It’s simple: The gauze used for pull-throughs came in a patch that measured 4 by 2 inches. And because the hardtack, the army biscuits issued as British battle rations, had the same shape (and perhaps, as far as soldiers were concerned, the same taste) as the gauze, they were also known as “four-by-twos.” Since “four-by-two” as rhyming slang for “Jew” originated, according to Partridge, in the World War I British army, this is apparently the source of it.

And yet, in theory at least, there is another possibility, since a “four-by-two” in England is, in addition, what is known in America as a “two-by-four” — that is, a length of lumber that is supposedly 4 inches wide and 2 inches deep. (In reality, these are its dimensions before it is dressed for sale in a lumber yard, at which point it is slightly smaller.) Two-by-fours, cut to various lengths, are used in construction for a wide variety of purposes, and it may be that Jews were first known in rhyming slang as “four-by-twos” even before World War I because of this. Indeed, it’s quite possible that all three British meanings of “four-by-two” are connected. Just as the four-by-two biscuit was named for the four-by-two gauze patch, so the four-by-two gauze patch may have been named for four-by-two lumber.

In any event, “four-by-two” was never a strongly insulting or pejorative term for a Jew in England in the way some other words were. It was chosen for its rhyme alone and not for its meaning, as is the case with most Cockney rhyming-slang words. (There are, of course, exceptions. It is unlikely to be a meaning-free coincidence that “trouble,” which is Cockney rhyming slang for “wife,” comes from “trouble and strife.”) In any case, according to Dan Friedman, the British-born-and-bred editor of this newspaper’s arts and culture section, the word is now obsolete. Current rhyming slang calls Jews “tins” or “tinnies,” a word formed from “tin lids,” which rhymes with — you guessed it —“yids.”

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.