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From the Wikipedia article on Rhyming Slang:

One example is replacing the word "stairs" with the rhyming phrase "apples and pears". Following the pattern of omission, "and pears" is dropped, thus the spoken phrase "I'm going up the apples" means "I'm going up the stairs".

But when the first person says "apples and pears", how do people know what "pears" is supposed to rhyme with? Does someone say it with clear context like "let me just run up the apples and pears here", and use it like that until everyone knows the expression? And then do people start dropping the "and pears" until that becomes well known? Is there any study of how this works in practice?

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    The same way people learn any new word or construction: by hearing it in context, and working out the meaning. Sometimes we get it wrong, and think the word means something different from what it means. If a lot of people get it wrong in the same way, the meaning changes. – Colin Fine Dec 30 '16 at 0:17
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I don't know the research here, but my guess is that people simply memorize the rhyming slang, just as you would memorize any other idiom. Those that are sufficiently frequent hat everyone in the community knows them could then get shortened.

A good way to test the last bit would be to collect a corpus of rhyming slang and see if it's the most frequent items that are most likely to be shortened. To others more familiar with dialect research in England, has anyone done corpus work on rhyming slang?

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