British regionalisms

Bit about Britain left a comment saying, “I relish the fact that this tiny island still has some smashing little regional variations. When you have a moment, look into words like ginnel and twitten and see where you end up.”

Where I ended up was in a narrow alley between two buildings, because that’s what a ginnel is in the North. I’m not sure what parts of the North. We’re going to have to treat it like one undifferentiated place, which it’s not—I’ve lived in Britain long enough to know that much. Treating it that way is like expecting the Southwest to be unified when Cornwall and Devon are still duking it out over who invented the pasty and how to eat a cream tea.

But we were talking about ginnels, weren’t we? (That trick of embedding a question that your listener–or in this case reader–can’t answer is very British, by the way. but that’s a whole nother digression.)

It might help if I explain that ginnels are kind of like snickets, but one’s longer and wider and the other’s not only narrower and shorter but also covered, and no I don’t remember which is which and I’ve lost the link that would’ve explained it. But snicket‘s another northern word, although I still don’t know what part of the north we’re talking about. I live in Cornwall, where we don’t use either word. I had to look them both up.

When I did, Google asked if I wanted it to translate ginnel into French.

Sure, I said.

In French, you’d say “ginnel,” it told me, although not exactly in those words.

Thanks, I said, because I’ve lived in Britain for eleven years now and I know how important it is to say thanks. Especially when you’re dealing with something as demented as a Google search.

Marginally relevant photo, although it won’t be clear at this point why: This is a columbine, or granny’s bonnet–or Aquilegia vulgaris if you like Laatin.

Going back to English, though, the word ginnel can be traced back to 1619, when it was a word for a drain. The connection between a drain and an alley is probably that they’re both channels.

The connection between a pasty and a cream tea is that they’re both something to fight about.

A twitten is a narrow path between hedges (or it’s any old alley, depending on who you want to believe, so we’ll skip the links), but it’s from Sussex, a country on Britain’s south coast, not in the north.

If you want to say that in French, you’d say “twitten.”

Am I doing something wrong with the translation program? I really hope not, because I’m learning so much.

Since we’ve mentioned Sussex, I have an excuse to introduce the history behind its name. It was one of the ancient British kingdoms and the name comes from the Old English for South Saxons, Sūþsēaxe. You’re on your own figuring out how to pronounce that. Old English and modern English aren’t on speaking terms. But I’m pretty sure it translates into French as Sūþsēaxe.

Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons and Essex of the East Saxons. As I-can’t-remember-who so knowledgeably pointed out, the county called NosSex, where the North Saxons would have lived, is missing from the list and from the map, presumably because It wouldn’t have lasted more than a single generation.

But I’ve wandered again, haven’t I? What would I write about if I didn’t? We were talking about local words. British English is rich in them.

Not long ago, a friend told me that in the Scilly Isles (pronounced, yes, silly) wild gladioli are called whistling jacks. Wild Thing and I have often wondered why even semi-serious gardeners here use the Latin names for most of their plants, and when I was introduced to whistling jacks I decided it’s because the common names were so local that no region could talk plants with any other region unless they fell back on Latin.

It may not be true, but it is convincing.

I struggle to remember plant names in Latin, even if they belong to plants we’ve dug into our garden and with which we regularly discuss the meaning of life. Latin names just don’t have the resonance of, say, honeysuckle (lonicera) or dogwood (cornus).

I had to google cornus. In French it’s cornus, but only if French gardeners use Latin.


Historian Todd Gray, author of How to swear like an Elizabethan in Devon, is (or at least was) walking through Devon and giving presentations. Devon isn’t Cornwall and the Southwest isn’t one undifferentiated mass, but we’re open minded here; we can mention Devon. His lectures are about local language and—I think—history.

One of his interests is what people from various towns were called—usually by people from the nearby towns. If you were from Bradford, you were a Honiwink. If you were from Coombe Martin, you were a Shammickite. And if you were from Meshaw, you were a Mumphead.

You learn so much useful stuff here, don’t you? Can I translate those into French for you? I’ve become fluent surprisingly quickly.

“Devon is so distinctive,” Gray told the Western Morning News. “Every few miles the stone changes, the houses change and the history changes. The nicknames get to the heart of every community.”

You can find a list of nicknames here.

One reason the houses and history changed in such a short distance—and one reason local words survived—was that in the 1700s the roads in the Southwest ranged from terrible to terrible, so if you wanted to go anywhere, you walked. Which in case you haven’t done it lately, takes a while. Or I guess you rode a horse if you had that kind of money. But forget about a cart or a carriage—the roads didn’t allow for that kind of carrying on.

So people didn’t get very far very fast–or probably even very often. Regions, towns, and villages looked inward, developing their own words and reference points and cultures.

The breathtaking thing is that traces of that survives.

85 thoughts on “British regionalisms

  1. Thanks for my Friday morning chucklefest, Ellen. And thank you for all the French translations. I’ll try them out at work later and tell you how I get on. As for the Latin plants – I can never remember them either. But my 82 year-old mum is a living, walking, Latin plant dictionary with a Scottish accent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting developments indeed . I couldn’t help but thinking of the funny sound of Sussex in French that allows naughty puns . We say Sussex with the French “u” sound, that gives the same sound as “suce sexe” which I think I don’t need to translate . All French want to settle in this county of course . On the other side I understand why there is no Nossex . Maybe there once was one but of course it quickly turned into a desert .
    PS : cornus in French is le cornouiller, even if horticulturists know both French and Latin names .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’ll stick with dogwood. As my ability to learn new vocabulary gradually deteriorates (which I’m happy to joke about but scares the shit out of me), I’m grateful for the old standbys–the ones that conjure up mental pictures that work like multiple strings attached to the word, providing several ways for me to find it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ” If you were from Bradford, you were a Honiwink. If you were from Coombe Martin, you were a Shammickite. And if you were from Meshaw, you were a Mumphead.” – Well, that makes perfect sense. Thanks for the French lesson.

    Here in Little-England-East, we have three Windsors. There’s Windsor. Directly east of that is South Windsor and off to the north is East Windsor. It used to confuse me, but now I understand. I think I’ll refer to the residents of all three as Mumpheads. If they protest, I’ll tell them it’s French and meant as a compliment.

    Thanks for another great post – I learn so much here :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for the mentch! Love what you’ve done with this – who knew where it would go, eh? Not I, that’s for sure. I suspect the connection between a drain and an alley is that they were both drains. Maybe the North Saxons were called Angles… When I get hacked off with my country, which happens occasionally, I love stuff like this. Ta :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had no idea where it would go either, but I very much appreciate the direction you shoved me in. And I wish I could claim that thought about an alley also having been a drain. I’m sure you’re right about it.


  5. Ellen, you’re so funny, I always have a good laugh when I visit. Yours is a great blog to visit first thing in the morning. I can always count on you to add to what I’ve always called my vast storehouse of totally useless information! :D (Maybe I should replace “useless” with “seldom called for”?)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. >common names [for plants] were so local that no region could talk plants with any other region unless they fell back on Latin.
    I think there is some truth in that.
    And, on the subject of french equivalents, “dandelion ” is a corruption of the French “dent-de-lion”; literally “teeth of the lion”. A lion with bright yellow teeth though – that particular lion must have been a bit lax on dental hygiene.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. In Leicester, the narrow alleyway is called a jitty. In County Durham, we use the word snicket for the same thing. As the French would say, “C’est la richesse de la langue.” Celebrate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question. I was ready to say it’s only in Massachusetts, but there was one. Its territory is now entirely in London. You know the Jeffrey Eugenides book called Middlesex? It’s a novel about being intersex–and very good.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I read it….
        Unfortunately I gave it to a young friend as something to read on the `plane going back from a visit here. Her father is a member of Middlesex County Cricket Club. He picked it up while visiting her, took it out into the garden to read….and after a while the peace of the rural afternoon was shattered by a sound as if a thousand boilers were exploding.
        Suffice it to say that he felt he had been deceived as to the nature of the book…

        Liked by 1 person

          • To be fair, the book is still intact….but it just shows what happens when you meddle with Middlesex…..
            Time passes…I remember when Middlesex was still in existence as a county: my friend may be young to me but she is in her late forties: and it is many years since I was taught the importance of a Bill of Middlesex in the history of the Common Law. As students we all rather liked the idea of a person said to be hiding and running about in Middlesex and used to apply it to those of our colleagues who had digs there…

            Liked by 2 people

            • Middlesex still sort of exists in ghost form. There’s a Middlesex University (located in Hendon, N.W. London). And as you drive into the Crews Hill area of the London Borough of Enfield from S. Herts there’s a Middlesex sign by the side of the road, and also one on the border between Enfield and Barnet. Enfield is a bit of Middlesex that’s cut off from the rest of the old county to the southwest west by Barnet, which is in Hertfordshire. All very complicated. Probably it was decided to officially do away with the county.

              Liked by 2 people

  8. All news to me. I do love the way you write. You usually elicit a giggle from me, but always, always wry smiles.
    I think I’d prefer the north, cause rockier and colder. :)
    I would never argue over tea and cream, I’d just be glad not to make and serve it!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Good morning Ellen, I’m wondering if my first comment from yesterday morning went into your spam. It’s awaiting moderation here although there was nothing particularly shocking or even interesting in it. Have been enjoying all the other comments meanwhile. Can’t add any new English vocabulary about alleys, however. I can give you a little French ‘ruelle’ if you’d like to have it or even an ‘impasse’ but there’s no way out of that one. Juliet

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just found it in the Comments Pending file. A fair number of comments are going there but not showing up in email–no idea why. I check it periodically these days, but not as often as I check my email, hence the delay. Thanks for sending up a flare. And for the French. I had no idea that was the–or one–meaning of impasse.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Une impasse has only one meaning, unless you count its metaphoric sense as a second one . It is a dead-end street but not necessarily a small one . A funny synonym is “un cul-de-sac” ( ass of a bag) . In spite of “cul” it is a correct word, not crude at all .

        Liked by 1 person

        • Funny you should mention that just now. I was in Bude–a nearby town–and noticed a street sign involving a cul-de-sac, which struck me since they’re usually called closes here. All of which caused me to wonder if my literal translation was right. It was, and without the questionable benefit of Google translate. To say that my French is imperfect does it more favors than it deserves, so the only time I’d run into the word impasse until now has been in English, which takes the French metaphor and runs with it. Discovering the literal meaning has been one of those small light-turning-on moments.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Cul-de-sac was a common term in the UK for a road with no other exit – certainly used in the ’50s and ’60s. But then it seemed to fall into disuse, as developers and local authorities began to favour “close” instead.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Ruelle with this meaning is a word we only find in ancient literature or in traditional songs coming from previous centuries, XVIIth, XVIIIth . The common meaning it is a narrow street, a little “rue”, but bigger than a venelle, a little “veine”, that must be the origin of the Scottish vennel Laura mentioned above . BTW I said this in a reply that doesn’t shows under Laura’s comment . Your electronic system is a bit of a hassle it seems .

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’ll go searching for your earlier comment. They’ve been going a-wandering among the–well, probably not the leaves so green. Among the bits and bytes. I have no idea how to channel them back (to return to the set of meanings we were discussing) where they belong.

              Something about finding the historical connections between one word and another (and another and another) always strikes me as exciting–as if our whole, insane, lovely language was about to make sense for a second or two.

              Liked by 1 person

              • There is a sense, or rather there are several senses acting in the evolution in meanings of a word, and also in the transmission of a word to different regions . This is highly interesting about the different possibilities offered to humanity and human choices . I use plurals but I’d like it more if we could give birth to one perfect sense for our word … But this is, I admit, very personal, and not clear yet .

                Liked by 1 person

              • Sorry, I’ve lost the thread here. Or maybe I’ve lost the plot, as people around here say. I’m not sure what “plurals” and “one perfect sense of our word” refer back to. What comes to mind, though (and apologies if I’m going tangential on you), is that I’d love it if we’d go over completely to plurals instead of the gendered singular for a sample person who could be of either sex. I do use it–in fact, we used it naturally enough when I was a kid that we had to be taught it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Language and logic–as well as the desire for equality–want the plural, but I’m still enough of a copy editor to worry that someone’s going to think I’ve got it wrong instead of thinking I made a choice.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yes sorry for this mental wandering, it comes from the fact that, like Descartes, I always considered that the root of all truths hence the summit of all knowledge lies in metaphysics . But doctors say I’m getting better, I won’t do it again, promised
                Yes this problem of gender for one unknown person bothers me too but a plural to refer to an individual sounds confusing too . We need a neuter gender like Greek, Latin German ..

                Liked by 1 person

              • In the early seventies (or thereabouts) some people tried to introduce one. You can see how successful it was–hardly anyone even remembers and even though I remember I’m damned if I know what it was supposed to be. I’d go for something that’s already in the language.

                Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, modern bedrooms have no room for a ruelle….
              Learning my French in Poitou, ruelle was, as you say, an archaic term (though not forgotten). A friend visiting me when I was unwell pulled a chair alongside my bed, announcing that she was now in the ruelle…
              It was not used for a narrow street, though, as I recall….in town a venelle seemed to cover anything smaller than a rue. while in the countryside, in the small villages, all the roads off the main ones were called allees.

              Any number of borrowings from the French in the Scots tongue…

              Liked by 2 people

              • So it seems Poitou is a highly educated region, unless you stayed there around 1850 . I can swear you everywhere I went in France the word ruelle is well known and used if necessary for a narrow street while the word venelle is only known by people who opened many books in their life . Same for the literary meaning of ruelle . I know it because I accidentally read some books but I’m sure 75 % of the modern french don’t know it . Out of Poitou; I mean .

                Liked by 2 people

              • Comparing notes with other immigrants I began to think that Poitou was, indeed, special!
                My elderly neighbours, not content with counting in old francs, used gallon as a liquid measure and the livre for things like dry goods…and that was when they were using French and not patois – which was still evolving. One chap wanted to borrow my cement mixer, which he referred to as the `betoon`…he had to point.
                Thinking back to the local town…people used venelle when giving directions or describing a place and though I only heard ruelle used in conversation once – by my friend – it was used by the undertaker when a neighbour died and we went to pay our respects: we were admitted to the ruelle – the area around her bed.
                I expect the term turns up in the books of Robert Merle…nearly every archaic term was obliged to make its appearance there…

                Liked by 1 person

              • For “anciens francs” it was a national trend among old enough people, I did it myself above 10 000 francs, aka one million anciens . For livre this is normal, we all learn at school that “une livre” is half a kg and it is used daily at any market of France . What is this “betoon” ? Are you sure you heard it right, because a cement mixer is “une bétonnière” ?
                This common use of “venelle” is indeed special, and definitely “gallon” is stunning, I never heard it anywhere, maybe there are remnants of the Angevin kings since Poitiers and Angers are not far, or maybe you really were there in 1800 and your long memory mistakes a few centuries .
                From Merle I only know “Week-end à Zuydcoote” and “Malevil” and I didn’t notice his particular vocabulary, maybe because I was born old . But to read these books in original version your French must be jolly good ! Congratulations .

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              • I think the conversation’s run out of Reply buttons, but go right ahead and start over with a new comment if you want to keep it going. (I have a supply of extra behind-the-scenes Reply buttons, but I don’t think I can slip them into the blog itself.)

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              • Yes, the anciens francs and the livres would have been fairly current…it was the juxtaposition of the gallons which got me…
                And apparently when buying a stere of wood, while the stere remained the same, on our side of the departmental – and regional – border it had three component units, on the other side it had four…
                I wonder there was not still an octroi post in place…
                Yes, I did indeed hear correctly, as I would have known what a betonniere was…
                You might be right about the Angevin legacy…the tourist wallahs had designated a series of roads as Route des Rois dÀngleterre – which di not find much favour in local eyes!
                Remember that most of my friends there were themselves elderly and had lived in communities which – apart from the existance of a light railway system from the late nineteenth century to the inter war period – had been pretty much sidelined from national life.
                Correct French was certainly taught in school…but the home vocabulary persisted.
                Local memory is long….we bought a farm building to restore which was referred to locally as the chateau though not so designated on any map. A chap running the history side of the 3ieme age group checked out the area on the Cassini maps and worked out by the position of watercourses that the building was indeed on the site of a chateau marked on the map…we had all thought that it referred to a fortified farm in the next commmune.
                I was thinking of Merle`s Fortune de France series…a cynical friend suggested that he had collected every archaic term possible and written the books around them!
                I am happy to say that my French was, shalll we say, more than adequate. I am losing the abiity to converse easily now that I live in a Spanish speaking country but its written language holds few secrets…from Chretien de Troyes to Houellebecq.
                I had good teachers in Poitou…and the run of several good private libraries.

                Liked by 2 people

              • No genius…just someone who always has a book in her hand!
                I do like your two roaring boys….I often wonder if the only time Villon had time to write was when he was in jug awaiting trial. Just how many narrow escapes from justice did he have!

                Liked by 1 person

              • As we are among geniuses what I extremely like is the recognizement they share above centuries, art forms and social classes, like what happened in Montmartre between Verlaine, Van Gogh, Pissaro … Villon was lost until Hugo, Rimbaud, Baudelaire celebrated his genius . Baudelaire was a recidivist since he anfd Mallarmé made Edgard Poe recognized for his value in Europe when nobody knew him .
                And the immense Rabelais was far more than a writer, he was an alchemist initiated to veeery old Egyptian mysteries . L’abbaye de Thélème is relatively explicit but there also are many encrypted texts in his books . He’s also the author of this eternal piece of wisdom “Science without conscience is nothing but ruin of the soul” .

                Liked by 2 people

              • Alchemy seems to us so strange a discipline…but not in that period: we find it odd that Newton was an alchemist…his contemporaries would not.
                It is one of the best gfts that can be given to be introduced to a writer, an artist of whom you had no knowledge….such doors open for you!

                Liked by 2 people

  10. Ooh, those regional variations are really intriguing! And they definitely make a language more colourful. This reminds me of an article I read about the differences in the Teochew (a southern Chinese dialect) spoken by people in China and those in the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora – a news announcer speaking in Teochew once had to translate some words into Malay for his Southeast Asian listeners because of how the dialect had evolved differently in that region. Thanks for that post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is interesting. As it happens, friends recently gave me a copy of Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which talks quite a bit about the evolution of languages and what a powerful and mysterious process it is. It’s not a deep book, but it’s a fun read on a topic that fascinates me–and you as well, from the sound of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. For some reason, this made me think of my high school biology class. We had to learn the names of all the plants in the room. (I have no idea what it had to do with human biology.) One of my friends pointed to a plant and said that she had named it Henry Kissinger. That way she could remember it was a Wandering Jew.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Chemistry comes from alchemy (clearer in French : alchimie/chimie) like astronomy and astrology, so as I am very very very old I don’t find it strange . Alchemy is the name Arab invaders gave to Egypt : Al Kemia, the black land . People of my age know all knowledge of the last recent 10 000 years comes from the Egyptian universal source . 😉
    But I’m afraid we went far from Northern Barbarians’ regionalisms . Apologies Ellen .

    Liked by 1 person

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