Dear Matt: Where do we get the expression to give someone the raspberries? Or why is that razzing sound called raspberries? — Not My Real Name, San Diego
Best I can piece this together, we get “raspberries” (in your meaning, to stick out your tongue and make a razzing noise) most directly from Cockney rhyming slang. This verbal amusement was popular with the laborers and vagabonds and eventually the crooks and scamsters of London, beginning sometime in the 1820s. The idea was^o substitute two- or three-word rhymes for certain words in a sentence. Among the best remembered is “trouble and strife” for “wife” (as in “Time t’go home t’me trouble and strife”); a colorful alternative was “cows and kisses” (the Mrs.). You and the cows and kisses might have been married in the “lean and lurch” (church) and then have a whole brood of “God forbids” (kids). If things go sour, you might one night have a “bull and cow” (a row, generally of the domestic sort). “Brass tacks” was the popular slang rhyme for “facts,” giving us the expression “getting down to brass tacks.” Rhyming slang was generally humorous and a bit competitive, and terms were often invented on the spot. There were probably hundreds of slang rhymes for “wife,” each used once by one individual in one conversation, but for some reason “trouble and strife” is the one most people used and still remember. Rhymers drew on words and images from popular songs, stories, nursery rhymes, famous names — anything that came to mind. The rhyming slang tradition had spread to Ireland, Australia, and even to the U.S. underworld by the turn of the century.
But back to “raspberries.” Another aspect of rhyming slang was the tendency to shorten well-known terms to only one of the words in the rhyme. “Raspberry” was the shorthand form of “raspberry tart,” Cockney rhyming slang for “fart.” The slang term was likely preceded by a useful item the British called a razzer. It was a small device like a floppy, flattened piece of rubber hose attached to a wooden mouthpiece. Blow through the mouthpiece and the rubber vibrated, making a particularly rude buzzing sound. Apparently, no well-equipped Brit would have been without his razzer when heading out for an afternoon of theater a few centuries ago. So the razzer likely inspired the slang term “raspberry tart,” which rhymed neatly with “fart,” and was eventually shortened to “raspberry,” a farting sound made with the lips and tongue.
Need I add my usual word-origin caveat? Actually, while boning up on rhyming slang, I encountered a statement by one word historian that puts it nicely, “Though a perspicacious man might make a guess, only a fool would commit it to writing.” So I guess that’s me, just a “giggle and drool,” committing it to writing for you “public works.”