History and Language in Oldbury, Worcestershire
Talk given in Oldbury on 15 May 2012
My father had a keen interest in local words, and in 1974, when I bought David Wilson’s very useful handbook Staffordshire Dialect Words: A Historical Survey (Moorland Publishing Company, 1974), we went through it together and he marked the Black Country words which he knew and sometimes used himself in Oldbury, Worcestershire. I am very happy to acknowledge my debt to David Wilson’s book in what follows.
This is a talk about the way people speak and the things they say in and around Oldbury, and how all this came about historically. Although it may not be immediately obvious, I’m from Oldbury, and so were my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, so the saying and words here are very familiar to me. Curiously, my wife, who is from Yorkshire, and her mother, also from Yorkshire, recognize a lot of Oldbury dialect words as also their own Yorkshire ones, so in some cases we’re talking about a non-standard, regional or even obsolete, archaic English that overlaps with other areas.
I’ll start with the historical context. We all speak Modern English, whether standard or non-standard. But it’s useful to remember that English and English-speakers are only the most recent inhabitants of the Oldbury area. If we were to go back, say, 10,000 years, the inhabitants would have spoken a language of which there is no record and of which we know nothing. It might have been the ancestor of modern Basque in northern Spain and south western France, or it might not, we’ll probably never know, Basque being one of the oldest languages in Europe and unrelated to any other that we know. So we probably wouldn’t have understood a word they said hereabouts in 8,000 BC . If we were to go back just 3,000 years, say to 1,000 BC, this area would have been inhabited the Celts, the most recent wave of migrants to reach the marshy tributaries of the Tame, and they would be speaking a language that belonged to our own language family, a language family called Indo-European, and which includes all the Germanic and Celtic languages, and also Latin and its descendants – French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. So you’d have heard a Celtic language spoken here and indeed all over Western Europe, in France (Gaul) and Ireland as well, before the Romans arrived, and you might have recognized the old Gaulish Celtic words for mother, matir, and daughter, duxtir, (modern Welsh mam and merch).
You could say that Oldbury was Celtic-speaking for many centuries – in fact in later years a form of Primitive Welsh – until somewhere between 500 and 600AD, and pockets of it may have survived even longer under Anglo-Saxon rule. There are a couple of local reminders of this ancestor of modern Welsh in place names. They are the name of the River Tame itself, which is linked to the other river names in Britain and Europe – Thames, Teme, Tamar, Taff, etc. also the Rivers Tone, Tain, Tean, as well as the Taw and Tay. The word Tame is based on either Indo-European *tam, ‘dark’, ‘the dark one’, ‘the dark river’, or more likely *ta-, *te- meaning ‘to flow’, so ‘the flowing one’, ‘river’.
But more intriguing is the place-name Penncricket, as in Penncricket Lane, which runs near the Halesowen – Oldbury boundary and climbs up onto the Rowley Hills, to be continued by Mincing Lane into Rowley Regis village. It seems to be the oldest place name in the Oldbury area. It was once thought to mean ‘the end of the boundary’ (with Halesowen), but it’s much older than that and probably means ‘the top or end of the small hill, mound’ and is made up of three words, two of them from early Welsh : penn meaning ‘head, end, top’ and crug, modern Welsh crug, also meaning ‘hill, hump’ or even ‘burial mound, barrow’. The –et ending is a Norman French diminutive, ‘little hill’. (Pen has various meanings in modern Welsh, and I was reminded that it’s still a living word when I was visiting Blaenavon Big Pit in South Wales last year and was being measured for a safety helmet. “Pen mawr!”, one miner shouted to another, “a big head!”) So perhaps Penncricket meant “the top of the hillock” or even “the chief mound”, perhaps a tribal fortification, a gathering point or burial place? Or a part of the Rowley Hills themselves, a bluff or outcrop? There is a Cricket St Thomas in Somerset, as you may know, where it means small hill. So the Welsh-speaking Celts were in Oldbury for many hundreds of years and Penncricket is the proof of it.
After the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD there was probably very little change linguistically around here. It remained as it were the ‘empty quarter’ of the country with some roads but very few villas or major settlements, and was probably under the sway of the Cornovii tribe at Wroxeter, Viroconium Cornoviorum, near the Wrekin. Latin was the official language of the Empire, of the army and of administration, but this sparsely populated area would have remained predominantly Celtic-speaking. Some Celtic Britons will have learned a few words of Latin to get by with officialdom, some were perhaps even educated in the language, and after nearly four hundred years of occupation and contact a large number of Latin words were borrowed into early Welsh – I’m sure that in Wales you’ve noticed eglwys, ‘church’, a word borrowed directly from the Roman occupiers’ Grek-derived Latin word ecclesia, as was pont, y bont, ‘bridge’ from pons, pontis. There are many others Latin loan words in Modern Welsh. And English place-names like Eccles and Eccleshall preserve that early Welsh word for church.
After four hundred years Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire. And this of course is where we come in, the English. Germanic tribes crossed the North Sea, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and settled in what subsequently became known not as Britannia (place of the *Pretani, perhaps ‘tattooed folk’, because ancient Britons had once painted themselves blue with a plant dye, woad), but as Englaland, ‘the land of the Angles’. The Germanic colonization was not immediate, it took many decades and a lot of fighting for the Germanic warrior bands to inch their way northwards and westwards from the east coast.
What became of the Welsh-speakers is not clear. Some presumably fled south and west, some became the serfs or slaves of the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the future kingdom of Mercia. The late Margaret Gelling, doyenne of English place name studies, whom I knew at the University of Birmingham, wondered aloud in one of her maps in Signposts to the Past (1978), whether the name Warley, which has an established etymology, might not preserve the word wealh, wealas, the Anglo-Saxons’ word for the non-Saxon slave or serf group, the Welsh, which we still use today. (The Welsh call themselves Cymry, ‘the people who live together in the same country’.) Interestingly even today in Switerland German speakers sometimes refer disparagingly to Romance language speakers as die Welschen, that is,‘foreigners, people we don’t understand’. It’s certain that the wealh, ‘Welsh’ element is there in a lot of English Midland place-names like Walsall, Walton, Walcot, and the Cymry bit is there in Comberton and Comberford, suggesting the possibility of continuing pockets of Welsh speakers. A lot of West Midland place names are Celtic, such as Penn near Wolverhampton, Pensnett, Penkridge (which is possibly the same word as Penncricket…) or the Barr bit of Great Barr, barr being Celtic for hill. The Anglo-Saxons learnt these place-names at some point from Welsh speakers. A bit further west there’s the completely Celtic place-name Malvern, which in modern Welsh would be Moel fryn, ‘bald mountain’ – which indeed of course it looks like when seen from a distance, absolutely bald, no trees on the top !
So Welsh words, or words referring to Welsh people, live on in local place-names. The language of the people here, after being early Welsh (with perhaps a dash of Latin), became Anglo-Saxon, or Old English as it’s sometimes called, and the majority of Oldbury place names are Germanic and Anglo-Saxon and in some cases still understandable – obvious Langley, ‘long lea, long meadow’, and Rood End where presumably a wayside cross once stood as you see on the Continent and Ireland even now, a rood, from Anglo-Saxon rōd, ‘pole’, specifically a crucifix, (linked to our modern word rod). The Anglo-Saxon name Oldbury itself, originally Aldan-byriġ, old + dative singular of burh, (as in borough, burgus) ‘fortified place’, mysteriously suggests an Iron Age fortification somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps a hill fort on Bury Hill, as has occasionally been suggested.
So on to Anglo-Saxon, then. When I was at school, those of us who disliked standing around shivering on windswept sports fields on winter afternoons managed to persuade a couple of sympathetic English masters to teach a group of us Sixth Formers Anglo-Saxon. We began with the Parker Chronicle, which describes year by year the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon England; we studied some of King Alfred’s writings, and some superb but very difficult poems such as The Wanderer and The Battle of Maldon. The Anglo-Saxon language came as a revelation. I felt what you might call ‘a sudden shock of deep recognition’, to quote the critic George Steiner, when I first heard it. Try this for example – bear with me, it won’t be long before you recognize what it is you’re hearing :
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod.
To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele.
It’s the Lord’s Prayer, of course, as it would have sounded here in Oldbury a thousand years ago. Our modern English is fundamentally still the same language, but it has a huge number of words substituted or added from Norman French and from the learned Latin of the educated class. We still say heofon, heaven and eorð, earth, but instead of gyltas, guilts, guiltinesses, we say trespasses, which is from Norman French; we say daily bread, using the term which originally meant ‘a bit, crumb, or morsel’ (perhaps from the verb break) which had replaced the specific word hlaf, loaf, by about 1200 AD; and we use the Hebrew amen at the end, meaning ‘truth’, ‘truly’, ‘so be it’ instead of that final soþlice, ‘truly, in very sooth’, as in Modern English, soothsayer, orignally a ‘truth-teller’.
Before the Normans arrived here in 1066 after theit victory at the Battle of Hastings, they had been preceded by their even more violent Scandinavian ancestors the Vikings – pirates, warriors and merchants from Norway and Denmark, whose first raid was on Lindisfarne in 793 AD. For two hundred years, from 800 to 1000 AD, there was sporadic warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, who spoke a related Germanic language of their own called Old Norse. It’s fashionable these days to say that the Vikings have had a bad press, that they were harmless farming and fishing folk. They may have been that later, but it’s clear from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles that, wherever they made landfall, they were an implacable foe to confront: fearless, ruthless fighters who took whatever they wanted, plundering, destroying, killing, and selling their hapless prisoners into slavery. Whether Viking warbands passed through the Oldbury area we don’t know, but many of them later settled not far away, to the north and east of the Roman road, Watling Street, in an area of England called the Danelaw. The Vikings’ language Old Norse had a significant impact on the early English language and they left us many basic words – sky, law, and window among others – and some Old Norse words also remain in our Black Country dialect, as we’ll see.
Much was changed still further by the Norman Conquest of 1066 which brought a new ruling class who spoke a form of Old French learnt in Normandy. The Normans were originally Vikings who had settled in Northern France and had learned French. The Norman Conquest made a huge difference in some areas of our language, with, for example, a distinction being established between the farm animals cow, sheep and swine, all Germanic Anglo-Saxon words, and the meat from them : beef, mutton, pork, all Norman French words, derived originally from Latin. So that’s roughly where we are now: Modern English is a much evolved form of Anglo-Saxon with a simplified grammar and a huge input of loanwords, especially from Latin and French.
But Modern English is also very special in having not only Standard English of the kind that BBC announcers once used – say the accent and language of Kenneth Kendall or Michael Aspel – but also a vast range of other grades of speech. For example there is Literary Standard English: I have none; then colloquial, that is spoken, Standard English: I haven’t any, I haven’t got any, not to mention North American I don’t have any; then provincial Standard English, using local vowels: I/Oi ‘aven’t (got) any; sub-Standard, that is with non-Standard grammar: Oi ain’t got none, with an illogical double negative (logically it ought to mean: I have got some!); and then local dialect, sometimes with non-Standard grammar: Oi ay gorrany, Oi ay got none. We have so many dialects for what is such a small island, dialects which often overlap and merge into each other.
Many dialects have been watered down or even lost in recent decades with rapid social change, but others have hung on, like that – or rather those – of the Black Country, an area which – depending on how you define it, the 30-foot coal seam etc. – may cover up to 100 square miles. Although many dialect words are shared across the Black Country, the accent is not uniform everywhere. Of course, many regional dialects have variations within a given geographical area. My father always thought that the oldest and purest Black Country accent and intonation were to be heard in the Cradley Heath and Old Hill area and he used to seek them out down Credley in the pubs over there while listening to Tommy Mundon and other entertainers. My Dad perceived a real difference from the Oldbury accent. Cradley Heath speech – Credley He-yath – certainly sounds at times more like a variety of Northern English in some of its open vowels : why, for example, which is almost Nottinghamshire or north Staffordshire. (My Dad had a Cradley friend, Sydney, whom he used to jokingly call Sidney Why Like, from the way he would often hesitate and say “Why, why it was, lairke… [whatever]”.) Very different from Oldbury or Birmingham [woi]: loike, foive, moi, quoite are fe:v, qua:t; or Cradley pint [pa:nt] I [i:], late [le:t], nineteen [na:nti:n], me fairther = father; nairme = name; wearsted = wasted; pairper = paper; in a sairf plairce = safe place; wild [wa:ld] or mek ‘ēst, make haste, all rather like north Staffordshire, a sairf plairce could almost be the Potteries or even Manchester. (If my mother, by the way, who was from Langley, heard anyone saying wairk, me fairther, Om agooin ter chairch, or O sin it in the pairper, she would say, very disapprovingly, that their accent was ‘very broad’ – which I suppose, if you looked at it the other way, could mean pure and uncontaminated by Standard English!) You might also hear, over towards Cradley, one vowel becoming two, as in Credley He-yath, in sleep [slɪip] and please [pli:jaz]. Oldbury diphthongs – two vowels occuring within the same syllable – foive, moi, quoite, loife, eight [æit] are closer to Brummie speech. But to my ear, and no doubt yours too, a Black Country ‘twang’ or intonation, almost like a melody rising and falling, is instantly detectable, and a lot of older people from Oldbury still have it.
Just to hint at the wider picture, let me show you a page from the definitive 1977 Linguistic Atlas of England. How do you normally describe the process of preparing a cup of tea ? I’ve chosen my words carefully so as not prompt you with the word I’d use. Well, this is the rather bewildering national picture – you see how rich this small island is in dialect words. To brew, draw, make, mash, mask, scald, soak, steep, or to wet tea ! Standard English would be to make tea, but round here you would probably also hear mash, in common with a large swathe of the country from the Scottish border down through the Yorkshire Pennines as far as here and Leicestershire, and east to parts of Norfolk. But in Lancashire and especially on Coronation Street it’s always a brew! Tea is brewed there, as we might brew beer here. I think, perhaps through the influence of television, brew is quite widely used in a lot of places now.
Black Country speech and words have considerable comic potential, I need hardly point out. When in 1997 a road island was built in Dudley, a sign was put up to warn drivers of possible rush-hour congestion. Translated into Black Country, very tongue-in-cheek, it read :
‘If yowm saft enuff ter cum dahn ‘ere agooin wum, yowr tay’ll be spile’t!’
Without tape recordings it’s difficult to go further with accent and intonation, but what we can do is look at the actual words people use and what makes them distinct from Standard English.
Black Country at its purest often preserves Old English and Middle English words and usages, and uses the Anglo-Saxon forms of the verb to be. There were two Anglo-Saxon verbs to be: bēon and wesan. Bēon went: ic bēo, þū bist, hē bið and wesan went: ic eom, þū eart, hē is. Later English merged the two, so we have now: I am, thou art, he is. We’ve largely stopped using the thou forms to say you to just one person, although we still understand them and they’ve been used in literature till quite recently – other related Indo-European languages like French, German and Russian have kept the thou forms for close friends and family, and also animals: tu, du, ты. (And of course many here will know that in Germany they say du bist). The Black Country dialect still has thee bist from þū bist, not þū eart, which gave thou art. My mother-in-law from Barnsley, Yorkshire might say to me: Th’art a poet an rait, meaning you’re about as useless, as unpractical as a poet, using the old but Standard thou art, th’art is used in Yorkshire dialect. But around here you might hear: thee bist, ‘ow bist, ma mon? from þū bist. Or Air bin ya? (The reply, of course, is : Cor grumble.) Thou is used a lot when addressing just one person: Thee cosn’t, and so on. And the negative: Bisn’t gooin out? – O bin an’ o bay. So bin we or bay we? Also the possessive adjective thy: Sup up thee beer.
The plural of thine, strictly speaking, is yowern, it’s yowern, it’s misen etc. Yow am or yome or we am never were grammatically correct Standard English forms: yo am, ay yah? combining singular and plural forms, but this has become the hallmark of the Black Country to such an extent that Brummies disparagingly call us Yam Yams.
Here’s an anecdote: when my mother was in Hallam Maternity Hospital, now Sandwell General, after she’d had my younger brother, she was visited not only by her brother-in-law John, who was a missionary priest, and by the chaplain to the hospital, but also by the local parish priest. The woman in the next bed, who spoke very broad, turned to my Mum and said, so that the whole ward could hear (my mother could have died with embarrassment):
Yome ‘avin’ sum vicars to see yow, ay ya?
My mother must have appeared to be a lost soul in need of saving…
There are some less expected ways in which Black Country speech harks back to its Anglo-Saxon roots. My Oldbury grandmother, a greengrocer in New Street, Oldbury, when asked how many there were, would say, for example: ‘oh, four or five and twenty’, which is very much as it would have been in Anglo-Saxon, or indeed in modern German: ‘Es gab drei und zwanzig oder vier und zwanzig Personen’. She would also say, of the time: ‘it’s five and twenty past six’, as many of us once did, and perhaps still do. Very Anglo-Saxon!
Right, let’s now move on to what linguists call the lexis – the actual vocabulary which Black Country people use – which consists of dialect words and not Standard English. I’ll group them under various headings and I’ll try to give their linguistic origins wherever I can. I’ve filtered out the many Standard English things which we may say thinking they’re local to us, when in fact they’re not. These are, for example, to chunter, grumble, mutter, complain; or she’s a besom, a pert woman, a harridan (from a broom made of twigs); or he’s a tartar (very fierce, as in the people of Central Asia); or the delightful to go doolally (tap) (= mad, from the name of a fever hospital in Bombay, now; tap = fever); or he’s bone (round here boon) idle (thoroughly idle, idle right through to the bone) ; or fizzog: wash yer fizzog, my Dad used to say, jokingly, face, of course (from physiognomy). I’m afraid all of those are in the Oxford English Dictionary as part of Standard English and are widely used and understood everywhere, so sadly we can’t lay claim to them as our own!
Let’s start with Black Country words used to describe people, the body and physical activities. Please feel free to comment or disagree! These are just my own impressions of meanings and usages, I’m always open to correction!
Backfriend: a flap of loose skin around the nails. This is common throughout South Staffordshire.
Chincough, chincuff: whooping cough, caught from sitting e.g. on a cold step. Yole get chincuff asittin’ thear. OED chink = a fit of coughing.
To kench: to sprain, I’ve kenched meself, twisted myself awkwardly.
Head Sirag: he’s th’ed sirrag, the top man, boss, sometimes ironic. From Sir Rag, the chief menial, therefore ironic.
Lungeous: rough-mannered, from lunge. Doh be so lungeous!
Powk: a stye in the eye, linked to pock, ulcer, as in smallpox. (Windpocken, Modern German for chickenpox.) Also a squilt, spot, blackhead.
Garl: secretion in the corner of the eye, ‘sleep’. Middle English gul, from Old Norse (Viking) gulr = yellow, gul is yellow in the modern Scandinavian languages. Also wopple, occasionally from an infection.
To chobble: chew + swallow, while graunching your teeth = grind + crunch.
Clack: noisy chatter; also disparaging word for throat or tongue (linked to cluck, of a hen?).
A cogwinder: a violent blow, a coal-‘eaver. Also sog: ‘E did go a sog, ‘e did give a sog(ger) = slap.
Clam: as in Om clammed / clemmed to dyeth = starving, very hungry. Hence ‘e’s a clamgut, a person who is always hungry.
Starved: as in Om starved to dyeth = very cold, from Anglo-Saxon steorfan, to perish cf. German sterben, to die.
To blart: to weep, cry, a variation of bleat, of a sheep, AS blaetan.
Barmpot: silly person, idiot, from barmy (barmy = frothy, perhaps from a yeast mixture in bread and beer-making?).
Donny: give me your donny, child’s hand. Danny in South Yorkshire. French?
Eak-lumps: goose pimples, prickly heat.
To feature: to resemble e.g. I was just wondering who he featured. Old French faiture from Latin factura = form.
Ever likely: well, it’s ever likely: no wonder, not surprising.
Gain : he’s not very gain, not very good, steady, well balanced on his feet cf. Standard English ungainly. Obsolete English gainly = graceful, from ON gegn = straight.
To gather: to fester (accumulate pus), a gathering, a festering spot, boil.
Gawby: stupid person, simpleton; cf mawkin: doh stand there lookin’ like a mawkin = stuffed dummy, gormless [ = without gaum, understanding, ON gaumr, attention, heed cf. gumption?], from a scarecrow, from Malkin, diminutive of Matilda, Maud. Giddy: flighty (of a woman), irresponsible from Anglo-Saxon gidig, possessed by a god, from AS god.
Hodge: stomach, to stuff one’s hodge.
Hullock: fat person, you great ‘ullock.
Jed: dead, worried to dyeth. Coalmine Jed Naps (nappers), Dead Heads.
Just now: I’ll do it just now = shortly, later on i.e. in the future, as opposed to Standard English where it refers to the past and means a short while ago.
Aer kid: friend (mate) or family member, often brother e.g. worrow, aer kid, yow awright? My father used to refer to his younger brother as aer kid : om tekin’ aer kid out.
Backhanded: as in that’s a backhanded way of doin’ things: opposite to the usual way or direction.
Ligger: liar, from Old Norse liuga. As opposed to: jonnock, it’s jonnock, = true, genuine (Norwegian jamn, ON jafn, steady, even)
Lonk: loin, I’ve got a pain in me lonk.
Lug: a knot in the hair. Cf Swedish lugg, a forelock, fringe.
Monty: pert, bossy, uppity cf mouthy and facy.
Mad’at, mad’eaded: impetuous.
On the mek-(h)aste: grasping, eager to make money.
Mardy: sulky, spoilt, as in marred = spoiled. Almost Standard English, very widely understood.
Mither: to worry, moan, pester, irritate, perhaps linked to Welsh moedrodd, to worry, bother. Cf moither. Almost Standard English, very widely understood.
Middling: unwell, ‘er’s a bit middlin’ today; I’m fair to middling. But in Yorkshire = not so bad!
To munch: to bully, hit. He’s a munch, a bully. Also to pail, hit, and to thrape, gave him a good thraping, thrashing, beating. Also to lamp, larrup, leather.
Nesh (or nash, as my mother said in Langley): sensitive to the cold, susceptible to cold weather. Also soft, delicate. Anglo-Saxon hnesce, delicate, weak, sickly, feeble. Cf Derbyshire, Yorkshire etc. nesh.
Nognyed: noggin, stupid person. Also a sawney, simpleton, originally a disparaging nickname for a Scotsman = Alexander, or perhaps a zany, clown. Also perhaps a sooner, a fool. Also to be yampy and a clarnet and a lommock. The opposite is a sharpshins, quick-witted person or precocious child (quick on the feet, fleet of foot). If you’re a clarnet you need to shape up, get ready, prepare, pull yourself together.
Neversweat: never in a hurry, lazy, ‘e’s a neversweat. My mother always said ‘e’s a bit ‘alf soaked, meaning casual in attitude, laidback, lacking in diligence, but NOT half-baked in the sense of stupid. A neversweat might jib at doing something, i.e. do it only grudgingly, grumblingly.
Rawm: to move about restlessly. Also to scrawl (crawl) and scrawm (squirm, clamber). Rile: a person or child who will not stay still, wriggles about.
Rodney: an idler, loafer. The kind of person who slommocks along, shuffles along. Also a Rubin, a mischievous child, or a nurker, scamp, rogue. A bit hard-faced or facy = impudent, bold.
Said: ‘e won’t be said, disobedient, won’t be told what to do.
Scrat: a mean person (perhaps from scratch penny). Also a shortwick (short week?), a bad payer, debtor. Skinny, miserly. Oi ‘ay got a stiver, broke (Dutch stuiver, very small coin)
Sheed: dow sheed the beer, spill (Anglo-Saxon sceadan, to scatter). Also to skitter, to sprinkle, as in a skittering of rain. Also mizzle, drizzle.
To snape: to snub, to be offensive to, I onny got snaped for me
trouble, from Old Norse snaypa, to nip cf. Modern Swedish snäsa.
Swopson: a heavily built woman, perhaps from Swedish skvabb, fat flesh? Can it be said of a man?
Tittle-stomached: squeamish, with an easily upset stomach, late ME tikel, frail.
Trankliments: trappings, accoutrements, personal effects, ornaments, bits and pieces, paraphernalia.
A two-three: a few.
A tup: a ram, male sheep, ‘e’s an old tup, womanizer.
Werrit: to be a werrit and to werrit, worry.
Wozzin, wazzin: throat, get it down thee wazzin, pure Anglo-Saxon survival wasend, throat, gullet, oesophagus, windpipe.
Before we move on to places and objects, let’s pause to consider the delights of colourful phrases and expressions in which often the Victorian Black Country seems to live on, some of them richly comical:
It’d fetch tears to a glass eye.
It’s enough to mek a pig loff.
‘E’d eat a jed mon out the cut.
‘Er’s as saft as a wairk’us wench.
It’s like giving a donkey strawberries.
He’s got a mouth like a parish oven.
‘Is ‘at’s like a tomtit on a round o’ beef. NB round of bread = Standard English slice. Also a piece, piecy, slice of bread and butter.
‘E woh be back afore pig-squailin’ time.
To goo all the way round the Wrekin: by a tortuous route, to be longwinded, take too long to come to the point etc.
The back of Bill’s mother’s = the back of beyond; it ay ‘alf black over Bill’s mother’s. It’s a bit puthery: close, sultry cf. Yorkshire puther, pother, a cloud of unpleasant smoke .
Well arl goo ter Smerrick [Smethwick]! = surprise; but in Walsall others might say Well arl goo ter Bloxwich!
‘E’s got a (big) bob on ‘imself: a mighty high opinion of himself. ‘E’s a bit ikey = haughty.
‘E’s on the box: off work sick (on the parish poor relief box?)
Saft as a bottle o’ pop = yampy, soft-headed.
Spon new, fire new = brand new, completely new (Old Norse span-nyr, chip new, Modern Swedish splitterny, brand new, new as a wood chip )
Air’un’s better ‘an nair’un.
To slip a collier in: to put something in that ought not to be there (from the game of dominoes)
‘Er played lights out: she made a fuss, ‘created’.
‘E’s thin as a lath; ‘er’s as big as Mary Gould; ‘e’s got a nose bigger than old Ned Cutler (Oldbury characters?).
Keep tekin’ no notice: yome as good as them as is no better.
It’s cold enough for a walking stick.
‘E wants coal crackin’ on ‘is brow.
‘Ark at im; it’s odds to what ‘er says: listen – hark at, odds to – the opposite of, archaic English.
‘E’s given it neck – given up, lost the will to live. One clean shairt’d see ‘im off. ‘es curled ‘is toes up. And of course to join Jack Lee’s Christmas Club… (Oldbury funeral director!
‘E’s lost his appetite and found a donk’s (donkey’s).
It ay worth a blast on ‘Onker Braidley’s [i.e. a local ragman’s] trumpet = worthless
And many more… Right, then how about objects? Many are no longer part of our lives today – from the world of canals, coal fires, coalmining, outside privies, washhouses, horses…
Cut, of course, the old 18th c. word for canal, a cutting dug out.
Bat: a piece of slatey coal cf. Blackbat Mine in Whiteheath, perhaps. Also slack, nutty slack, small pieces of coal. ‘Nutty Slack’, affectionate nickname for a child.
Midden: muckheap, from Scandinavian. Also miskin, meaning the same or the structure to hold it, from Anglo-Saxon mixen, dung-heap, dung.
Snap: food, originally for miners; also tommy. And of course fittle, it’s bostin’ fittle. Late Latin, from vivere, victualia, things necessary to keep you alive, victuals.
Suck: sweets, gi’us some suck! (spice in South Yorkshire)
Settle: a bench, usually wooden; also a brick table in a cellar, AS setel, seat.
Petty: it stinks like a petty, outside lavatory, privy. French petit, a small place, cf. Mod French le petit endroit. Lar pom too!
Glede: live ember or burnt coal, from glow, glowed. ‘E’s got a vice like a glede under a doo-ar. In the morning you riddle the gledes in the fireplace to separate out any unburnt coal for burning.
Ess-hole: = ash hole in the grate, in a fireplace under a coal fire. The bars at the front of a cooking range were known as strides (as in the crossbars of a wooden gate, also strides). All gone now, no cooking ranges, and very few have coal fires!
Stave: a rung of a ladder.
Bobowler: large moth. As drunk as a bobowler, from a moth’s wild fluttering around a light. Also a macarabbit, indeterminate insect. Drunk, of course, was kay-li’ed, somebody who’d had too much sherbet, as it were. Sherbet, kay-lie, perhaps from Arabic kali, potash, the ashes of a plant, saltwort, used in soap making.
Bostin’: fine, very good, it’s a boster, ay it? It could be linked to to burst, as in being buxom, ‘bursting out all over’ or perhaps from boast, ‘boast-worthy’?
Dolly peg: was the wooden stick for washing clothes in a dolly tub. The maid or maider was the wooden crown.
Bodge: to poke a hole through, as in making a peg rug with strips of old material. Not to be confused with:
Podge: to podge in, to queue-jump, probably from to poach.
Gulley, alley, narrow passageway. (Cf. ginnel: in the North a narrow passage, alleyway, perhaps from Norman French chanel, chenel (= channel).) Also: entry: goo up the entry, usually a passageway next to a building.
Blether: balloon (originally a pig’s bladder was used).
A bonk: a bank, as in a pit bonk, tocky bonk (tacky, sticky mud). Also tump, hump, hillock cf. Welsh twmp.
Fold, fode: yard, area by house. Play in the fold (or fode), not in th’oss road, the (main) road used by horses.
Stonnies: marbles. Also marley, marlies.
Snicket: a latch on a door. Cf Yorkshire to sneck the door, to put down the latch to secure it.
Pudding bag: cul-de-sac
Poke: ‘e’s got some poke = money, perhaps as in a pig in a poke, a bag e.g. for money, purse.
Sad: of bread or pastry, not risen.
Tay: tea, e.g. the tay masher. Obsolete pronunciation, as in Modern French:
“Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take – and sometimes Tea.”
(Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, 1712)
Cf. also peas as pays, speak as spake etc.
Yorks: string tied around trouser legs below the knees to prevent the trouser bottoms from trailing in mud (from yokes?)
Gansey: cardigan, jersey, from Guernsey, as is jersey from Jersey.
Lezzer: Anglo-Saxon leasowe, meadow, lea, on the lezzers.
Suf: sough, underground drain, gone down the suff. Standard English, although little used.
To make a modge or a hack, an ‘ack of something, do it badly.
Reasty: of food, gone off, rancid. Also ronk = rank, with an awful smell, foul. “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (Hamlet).
Robble: it’s in a robble = mess, confusion, tangle cf. unravel.
To wag (it) : miss school, play truant.
Tun-dish: funnel (tun = barrel). Anglo-Saxon tun, from Medieval Latin tunna, perhaps from Celtic Gaulish. Cf. The Three Tuns pub in Sutton Coldfield.
Brahma: good chap (Hindu creator god), but often ironic.
Wench: girl, woman. Chapwench = tomboy.
Keggy: ‘e’s a keggy = left-handed, cack-handed.
Ikey: stuck up, haughty.
Dubous-minded: twisted, crooked
Frowsty: seedy, insalubrious, dirty.
Hare-shorn lip: hare lip, shorn = cut, with a cleft.
Quarry: floor tile from quarrel, from Old French, originally Latin quadratus, square.
Chawl: cooked meat ( from the jowl of a pig).
To fenague: to give up on a project (perhaps linked to fatigued, tired?)
To dout: to put out (of a fire), ‘do out’.
To dowk: to duck down.
Abear: bear, abide, I cor abear ‘im = tolerate
Chicklings: chitterlings, pig’s intestines.
Bull: factory siren, hooter.
Any road up: anyway
Aysum-jaysom: fair and square, honest.
Bonny: strapping, large (of a baby)
Boss-or bunk-eyed: cross-eyed, with a squint.
Children’s games: e.g. ‘ollybees, also barley (barlay, Middle English = freely, unhindered, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); wack’osses, a form of group leapfrog against a wall, also known as polly on the mopstick; on, he’s on, for he’s it elsewhere, i.e. the one who has to look for the others in tick or tick on release, tig, or hide-and-seek. When he catches someone, the person who is on says to him: airky or acky one-two-three! The game is sometimes called I-erky. Baggy or bags I have it, said in laying claim to something.
Backarapper: a noisy piece of coal exploding on the fire, from the name for a firecracker.
To hivver and hover: hesitate.
A jack-bannock: stickleback, tiddler, small fish.
Jollop: laxative medicine.
Pailings: wooden fence
Old Shaggy: the Devil? ‘I thought Old Shaggy had got me’. Or perhaps Death, or just a ghostly apparition?
To scraige: to graze skin.
Tat: second-hand items collected by a tatter, totter, rag-and-bone man. Tattin’ about, riding or walking about, on the moach, moochin’ about.
Wammel: mongrel dog, perhaps Anglo-Saxon hwaemelec or a corruption of animal.