Q From Dudly: Perhaps you can help Americans with a phrase, I should cocoa, that at least one of us finds rather bewildering.
A Since few Americans know of or use rhyming slang, that isn’t surprising. It originally stood for “I should say so!”, a sarcastic exclamation to express disbelief, derision, scorn or indignant negation. You might also render it as "“You must be joking!” “Not on your life!” or “No way!”
And yet, throughout the many years when America was pinging monkeys to the stars never to return ... there is no record of any of these unwitting pioneers throwing a strop, uttering the simian equivalent of the phrase ‘I should cocoa’, turning tail and bolting on the gangway.
Daily Mail, 17 Jun. 2009.
It appeared in London in the 1930s but became more widely known in the 1950s through its use on the BBC radio programme The Billy Cotton Band Show. Many people were reminded of it as a result of the Supergrass hit with that title in 1996.
It’s an odd example of the type, since it’s a straight rhyme of cocoa with “say so” without the bipartite phrasing usual in terms like apples and pears (for stairs), daisy roots (boots), or plates of meat (feet) that leads to their being abbreviated as — for example — plates, as a further level of in-crowd obfuscation. Though it has been recorded in the longer forms coffee and cocoa and tea and cocoa, these look like afterthoughts, attempts to force an existing saying into the standard mould (if these were genuinely the original forms, one would expect to hear coffee and tea as short forms, but one never does).
I remember it from my own London childhood in the late 1940s. Even then it was so far divorced from its origins that you sometimes saw it written as I should coco! or I should co-co! Though coco was centuries ago the spelling of the comestible we now call cocoa, I’m quite sure that wasn’t in people’s minds. I suspect the influence of Coco the clown, well known in the Bertram Mills and Billy Smart Circuses in England at the time.
Though it isn’t defunct, these days I should cocoa! usually appears in print as a punning reference by an older writer or as a self-conscious way to evoke a period, place or mood. This is well illustrated by this television review from the Guardian in December 1999:
But one might ask how well it will play, this comedy adventure about the conning of pin-striped shits by blimey guv diamond geezers, ’arnessed in service of a sentimental Variety Club plot about finding money for a kiddie’s operation. The author, once director of Barings and Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, does the City drawl and the takeover business with more conviction than life east of Canary Wharf. I should cocoa.