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.