Take a linguistic tour – a holus-bolus fidge-fadge, if you will – around some of Britain’s most charming forgotten words
You might find children ‘opple-scoppling’ for sweetmeats in the Clun Valley in Shropshire. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
When I examined the wonderful collection of glossaries of county dialects I realised just how monastic was the zeal with which the Victorian lexicographers went about their compiling. Just as they collected the rocks, butterflies and ancient antiquities that now fill our museums, so (predominantly between 1850 and 1880) they went around collecting examples of local dialect from every county in England and several in Scotland – and even some specific industrial communities such as the mining villages of Yorkshire and Durham.
I learned much about the British character through the English language. One of the more interesting aspects of English is the love of identifying action and sound through semi-onomatopoeic phrases. These jolly, affectionate and inventive expressions are known in the linguistics community as “reduplicative rhyming compounds”.
The following examples make them self-explanatory: winky-pinky a Yorkshire nursery word for sleepy; nibby-gibby (coined in Cornwall in 1854) for touch and go; hockerty-cockerty (Scottish 1742) with one leg on each shoulder;inchy-pinchy (Warwickshire) the boy’s game of progressive leapfrog; fidge-fadge (Yorkshire) a motion between walking and trotting; boris-noris (Dorset) careless, reckless, happy-go-lucky; hozzy nozzy (Rutland) not quite drunk and most rustically: wiffle-waffle (Northamptonshire) to whet one’s scythes together.
Shropshire is the most exuberant of all with: aunty-praunty (Ellesmere) high-spirited, proud; bang-swang (Clee Hills) without thought or headlong; hobbety-hoy – a youth between boyhood and manhood; holus-bolus – impulsively; without deliberation; cobble-nobble – to rap on the head with the knuckles and perhaps most charmingly of all opple-scopple (Clun) to scramble for sweetmeats as children do.
The country’s light-hearted humour is also inventively demonstrated through rhyming slang and not just famously among the Cockneys of east London. Mostly it simply rhymes, but sometimes the expressions take it further with the meaning carried across: borrow and beg (late 19th century) an egg (the term enjoyed a fresh lease of life during the second world war food-rationing period); give and take for cake (no cake can be eaten that has not been given – if only by a shopkeeper – and taken; cake also means money – “a cake of notes”: that too needs to be given and taken); army and navy (early 20th century) gravy (which was plentiful at mealtimes in both services) and, most touchingly, didn’t ought (late 19th century) port (wine) (inspired by the simpering of ladies who, when asked to “have another”, replied that they “didn’t ought”).
Another predilection is the use of euphemisms, a result of delicacy and manners: well suggested by the word continuations (1825) for trousers (since they continued a Victorian male’s waistcoat in a direction too delicate to mention). Likewise the functions that we often try and pretend are not actually happening on our regular trips to the loo or restrooms, where we go and empty the ashtrays (Manchester) or the teapot to make room for the next cup of tea(Buckinghamshire); see what time it is on the market clock (Bedfordshire);shake the dew from one’s orchid (Cumbria); turn one’s bike round (Suffolk);water the horses (Cheshire); wring out one’s socks (Kent) or most effacing of all: see the vicar and book a seat for evensong (Isle of Wight).
The final dying action of the body is also something that people prefer not to confront directly, as the following euphemisms for dying attest: stick one’s spoon in the wall (1800s); go west (Cockney); go trumpet-cleaning (late 19th century: the trumpeter being the angel Gabriel); drop one’s leaf (c1820) ortake the everlasting knock (1889) although perhaps the most poetic is to faint away in this vale of tears (Brompton Cemetery, London 1896).
Other topics of semi-taboo expression involve the evil of the devil, who is thus better known provincially as author of evil, black gentleman, fallen angel, old scratch, old split-foot and the noseless one. Just in the north-east of England he’s been Clootie, Awd Horney, Scrat, Auld Nick and the Bad Man, while Yorkshire has had him as Dicky Devlin; Gloucestershire as Miffy; and Suffolk as Jack-a-Dells. And likewise the sinister or underhand notions (originating from the Latin word sinister for left hand) of left-handed people have been variously described as molly-dukered, corrie-fisted and skerry-handit(Scotland); car-handed, cack-handed and cowie-handed (north-east): kay-fisted, kibbo, key-pawed, high-’ammered, caggy-ont (Lancashire): cuddy-wifter (Northumbria) kay-neeaved or dolly-posh (Yorkshire); keggy (East Midlands) and Marlborough-handed (Wiltshire). Oldest of all is awk (1440), an old English word which means “with or from the left hand” and thus the wrong way, backhanded, perverse or clumsy (hence awkward).
On more omnipresent themes, in scouring these dialects, I have unearthed all sorts of characters – from the Midlands jaisy, a polite and effeminate man, the Yorkshire stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman or the dardledumdue(Norfolk 1893), a person without energy. The English language has never been short of slurs for the stupid and colourfully describes them as a clumperton(mid-16th century), a dull-pickle or a fopdoodle (late 17th century) or agoostrumnoodle (Cornish 1871).
The weather is another eternal feature and Sussex is rich in its local lingo, withport-boys – small low clouds in a clear sky; windogs – white clouds blown by the wind; eddenbite – a mass of cloud in the form of a loop; slatch – a brief respite or interval in the weather; swallocky – sultry weather; shucky – unsettled weather; truggy – dirty weather; egger-nogger – sleet and smither diddles – bright spots on either side of the sun.
On matters of climate, Scotland has the final say. Either there is more weather in the cold, wet places of the world or people have more time to think about and define it.
The Scots may not have as many words for snow as the Inuits, but they have a fine vocabulary for their generally cool and damp climate. Dreich is their highly evocative word for a miserably wet day. Gentle rain or smirr might be falling, either in a dribble (drizzle) or a dreep (steady but light rainfall). Plowtery(showery) weather may shift to a gandiegow (squall), a pish-oot (complete downpour) or a thunder-plump (sudden rainstorm accompanied by thunder and lightning). Any of these are likely to make the average walker feel dowie(downhearted) as they push on through the slaister (liquid bog) and glaur(mire), even if they’re not yet drookit (soaked to the skin). The track in front of them will probably be covered with dubs (puddles), as the neighbouring burn(stream) grows into a fast-flowing linn (torrent). For a precious few fair days in summer, there may even be a simmer cowt (heat haze), though the more austere will be relieved that the likelihood of discomfort remains high on account of the fierce-biting mudges (midges).