This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.
Chatting today to our local fishmonger (Grimsby born and bred) I was reminded of a wonderful expression, back of Doig’s, submitted by a contributor from Grimsby (b.1939) to the Library’s Evolving English WordBank.
The verb hawm has been recorded in this sense in several dialects, including in Lincolnshire, since the nineteenth century. It’s defined by the English Dialect Dictionary as ‘to waste time, to be idle, to move about aimlessly, to loiter, to stand gaping and staring’. The additional reference here to back of Doig’s is particularly intriguing as it’s also captured in a BBC Voices Recording in Osgodby, Lincolnshire in 2004.
This more detailed description suggests that back of Doig’s is a playful expression, used especially by children to parents to deflect an unwanted enquiry as to what one has been doing or where one has been. This type of playful folk idiom is extremely difficult to observe as it typically occurs in private or domestic exchanges, often in the form of stock phrases or habitual responses to everyday situations. It is therefore rarely documented in linguistic surveys or conventional dictionaries.
Egging Back O’ Doig’s, a 1995 glossary of words and phrases from Grimsby and Cleethorpes compiled by Alan Dowling, lists several such elusive local expressions. It has entries for both egging in the sense of ‘being on an errand’ and orming (a re-spelling of hawming to reflect the local tendency to delete an initial <h> sound) in the sense of ‘lounging about in a sloppy way, messing about’. This applies especially to ‘groups of youths gathered together without purpose’. It also confirms that ‘back o’ Doig’s’ is used in response to a nosy question or as a diversionary tactic to avoid an honest answer, expressing something along the lines of ‘mind your own business’. Lastly, it also confirms that local shipbuilder, J.S. Doig, had a shipyard in Grimsby docks in the middle of the twentieth century.
Wright, J. 1898-1905. English Dialect Dictionary. London: Henry Frowde. Dowling, A. (ed.). 1995. Egging Back o' Doig's. A Glossary of Words and Expressions used in Grimsby, Cleethorpes and District. Hull: University of Hull.
This week’s post comes from Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer, Digital Multimedia Collections.
One of the most exciting things about exploring the sound archive is all the unexpected things you stumble across. While researching the Nottinghamshire dialect, I listened to this recording of Mr Arthur Sharpe (British Library reference: C707/190).
Arthur Sharpe was a Co-op grocery manager, recorded for an oral history project in 1971. The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 project made recordings of speakers from a range of backgrounds talking about their memories from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Most of the interviews in the collection follow the same structure: with questions about parents, home life, school and employment. They provide a lot of insight into life at the time, plus plenty of linguistic interest too. However, on the final tape with Mr Sharpe the interviewer goes off-topic to ask him directly about something alluded to in some of his earlier answers: how did you know D. H. Lawrence?
What follows is a personal description of his connections with the Lawrence family, with D. H. Lawrence being his close neighbour and sometime teacher. In the clip you can hear Arthur’s anecdote about a disagreement with a schoolmate, which D. H. Lawrence calmly resolved.
Somewhat sadly, recordings of this kind are as close as we are going to get in terms of audio documentation of D. H. Lawrence himself. Despite his living well into the era of recorded sound, it seems there are no extant recordings of his voice.
The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 collection - often known as ‘The Edwardians’ - was a pioneering project co-ordinated by Paul Thompson, Thea Thompson (who also published as Thea Vigne) and Trevor Lummis at the University of Essex.
Over 500 audio interviews were conducted across all of the UK with people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and occupations. The collection provided the source material for Paul Thompson’s 1975 classic book TheEdwardians: the Remaking of British Society, and Paul then became one of the pioneers of oral history both in the UK and internationally.
All of the recordings in this collection are available at the British Library, and transcripts can also be consulted at the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex.
The Spoken English and Oral History archives are full of ordinary people telling their extraordinary stories - so I look forward to discovering and sharing more hidden gems in the future!
This week we are pleased to feature a video from musician Paul Cheese which showcases a singularly unusual creative project. It is a musical piece he made from over 4,000 ‘found sounds’ recorded on a 5,000-mile bike ride around the UK in 2019.
Carrying a mobile recording setup on my bike, I cycled almost 5,000 miles to every region of the UK, with the goal of capturing the sound of people, places and record in unusual locations. During the trip I recorded and captured the sounds of people, their friendliness, the sound of the elements interacting with architecture and nature, and the activities of everyday life - over 11,000 sounds. I used around 4,000 of these to create a four and a half-minute piece of music.
The sounds of people's workplaces and tools, hobbies, art, and the different rhythms of different materials - outdoor recording the echoes bouncing off concrete, or through tunnels - all combined to create a unique reflection of ‘The Sound of the UK’.
Paul has kindly donated to the archive a high-quality version of the video shown here, plus a wav-format audio file, and an additional ‘making of’ video. A second audio file, of 200 people each pronouncing the name of their respective home city, town or village, has been lodged with our Accents & Dialects section.
Via email, I asked Paul a few questions about his project.
Steve Cleary [SC]: Did you camp outside each night or stay in hotels or B&Bs? And how was that?
Paul Cheese [PC]: Sometimes I would be on the road cycling and recording for 16 hours and most evenings I'd spend a couple of hours backing everything up, cataloguing all of the day’s captured media, writing a diary/blog and recharging the cameras/recording gear. So a pillow for my head and somewhere safe to put the bike and recording equipment for the night was required. I mainly stayed in cheap B&Bs and hostels. Most days I wouldn’t have any accommodation booked until the evening. This was because very early on in the journey I realised that sticking to the planned route would be impossible - the reason being that when I talked with people along the way they would suggest great-sounding places for recording. Fantastic!, but it was often a completely different way than the way I'd planned to go. So I quit the planning thing and although I had an idea of the main direction I was heading, I just headed where people suggested. This did mean that sometimes I hadn’t booked accommodation until 11.30 pm, and most of the time I didn’t have a clue where I was going, which added a whole different level to the adventure.
SC: How long were you on the road for?
PC: The cycle took me just over three months, longer than planned because of the detours to capture people's sound suggestions.
SC: What was the most interesting, enjoyable or surprising place you visited?
PC: I met so many amazing people and collected thousands of fantastic sounds that take me right back to the moment when I hear them. But there is one moment, that when it happened at the end of a long day it made me feel euphoric, emotional and lucky. As mentioned, sometimes I would arrive quite late to my accommodation. But this meant that some days I would arrive after everything was closed. So, no food. I was cycling in Wales and was staying above a pub.
It had been a long hilly day and I had eaten all my supplies. When I arrived, everywhere was closed and the bar didn’t even have any peanuts. But there were a few locals at the bar, we got talking and they said, ‘You’ve been cycling all day, we can’t have you going without food'. So one guy went home and got me some bread and butter; one lady got me some eggs; another went home and got me sausages; and one lady said, 'I’ve got some vegetables, you can have them too.' I felt like I was in a film, how amazing was that? I was so appreciative of their kindness and food.
During all of my bike adventures I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people, and to top it all, when I left the pub in the morning, the front door made a fantastic sound, which I recorded and used in the final track.
SC: What were your favourites of the sounds you recorded?
PC: I collected thousands of sounds, just by having a good listen to the world around me.
How can I choose just one? There were so many great sounds and every sound has a story:
the beat of firemen retracting ladders in Suffolk;
the rhythm of chalk marks as the sign writer marked out the new lettering at a carriage restorers in Ballantrea on the west coast of Scotland;
lock gates in Leicester;
curlews and electric fences on the Orkney isles;
the kettle drum-like sound of metal girders being dropped in Cornwall;
the breathing of the shingle on Brighton seafront;
waves on steps in Rhyl;
footsteps on the beach of the North coast of Guernsey;
crop sprinklers in Shropshire;
the winding of cable on the transporter bridge into Middlesbrough;
Hull Cathedral bells and the flicker of bunting;
the favourite chord of an organ master in Newark-on-Trent;
the one-o -clock gun in Edinburgh;
clog dancers in Leeds;
kicking the bar in Aberystwyth;
the wind whistling in the rigging of boats at Sandwich bay, Kent;
the scrape of bull dozers pushing metal into compactors on the north coast of Wales;
Manchester town hall clock;
the rhythm of builders re-pointing a wall in Somerset;
the sound decay of the reverb in an old railway tunnel in West Yorkshire;
the sounds of Rossy boatyard at Clydebank as a plane flew over;
a Spitfire fly-by in Folkestone on the Kent coast;
the audio tones of the different sluice gates and weirs on the Kennet and Avon canal;
rhythms and clanks of metal works in Keighley;
an old man with a 2 piece metal walking stick in Cambridge;
a motorbike dealer’s favourite engine idling in Norfolk;
‘relay for life’ walkers footsteps in Barnstaple…
There were so many different bird songs and the sound of people’s accents.
If I had to choose from a cycling point of listening/view, it would have to be the sound of a strong wind humming bass lines through barbed wire fences.
From my experience, the loudest sparrows were on Jersey: the loudest blackbirds were in Norfolk; the loudest seagulls were in Devon (Sidmouth); and the most melodic blackbirds are from the northeast of England up to around Dundee.
SC: Were there advantages to doing this by bike?
PC: The brilliant thing about being on a bike is that you can stop and listen. Here’s an example.
I was cycling EuroVelo 1 in Scotland, ah, the amazing quiet! It was so quiet that I could sense this low rumble… the kinda sound you can feel. People say about following your nose - well I followed my ears…
I followed my ears for about a mile. Eventually I found it: the low sub bass was coming from a water pumping station. Which incidentally was humming the note of D.
There were some interesting things I noticed from the recordings (not highly scientific but interesting all the same). From the sounds I recorded, 30% blackbird calls on the east of the UK were at 98 bpm, in the west, 108 bpm. Three out of four UK builders render a wall at 108bpm.
From the thousands of sounds I collected, the most prominent tempo across the UK was 98 bpm, then 110 bpm, then 122 bpm. I reflected this by the three different tempo changes within the final piece.
I also found that the prominent key was F# major, then D major and A# major (I found that D major was the prominent key of Kent). I also used this in the different movements of the final piece of music.
SC: Would you consider doing something like this again?
PC: Absolutely! I’m in the middle of creating my third solo album Just for The Record Three. This is being written and recorded on 12 worldwide cycle missions with one song being written on each trip.
I’m looking forward to how the third album will come together and the inspirational sounds and locations I will find on the way.
Yee I-Lann is one of the British Library’s Resonations artists-in-residence. She lives and works in her hometown Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. Her practice engages with regional Southeast Asian history, addressing issues of colonialism, power, and the impact of historical memory in lived social experience. Yee I-Lann was one of the featured artists in this summer’s Unlimited. This was Art Basel’s section for large scale projects. She presented her work TIKAR/MEJA, 2020 which was created in collaboration with women weavers in her homeland. In this blog, she gives us some insight into the start of her online residency at the British Library:
Perhaps Mr Michael Saville wanted me to find his story buried in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at the Bristol Archives. I was looking for stories and sounds on the British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue and entered ‘North Borneo’, where I am from, into the search box. An interview with him landed first on my screen. In the summary of the interview, I read: ‘He describes the nationalism movement [in Malaysia] and his involvement in it, and he expresses various doubts.’
‘What doubts, Mr Saville?’ I asked the screen. Did you have premonitions of the history I have since lived? I have doubts too, lots of them. What’s your story? What do you want to tell me Mr Michael Saville? What do I want to know from you? What do I want to say to you? Do you want to hear what I have to say?
So I chose this audio file as my first request for the Resonations residency I am part of. I chose it because the recording’s summary contained the word ‘doubt’. ‘Doubt’ seemed a good place to start a conversation.
Mr Saville, his wife and two children arrived in my home town Jesselton, North Borneo in April 1949. The name has since changed to Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah.
Since 1881, North Borneo had been a British Protectorate under the CEO of the North Borneo Chartered Company. When, as a consequence of the war with the Japanese during WWII, the company went bankrupt, the North Borneo Chartered Company handed us over to the British Empire, and we officially became a British crown colony in 1946.
A young Mr Saville, with his education in finance, had come to join the administration. He would work for the secretariat, become a District Officer, and hold the office of Controller of Supplies, dealing specifically with rice.
Playing sports, Town Padang with the Jesselton Sports Club in the background, 1950s, Robert Knowles’ Collection, Sabah Museum. Mr Saville speaks of the Sports Club in Jesselton at the Town Padang in his interview. The Town Padang was the site for the Proclamation of Malaysia in Sabah in 1963.
When I first listened to ‘Interview with Michael Saville (1999-04-13)’ - British Library shelfmark: UBC034/700 - I thought, oh, that’s quite benign. The sound of his voice was familiar to me. In 1963, as the British exited North Borneo, it joined the Federation of Malaya, as Sabah, to form Malaysia. Mr Saville left Sabah in 1964. I was born seven years later. I grew up hearing what I’ve come to think of as a British paternalistic tone: earnest, sympathetic at times; defensive at others, with swallowed breath at the racier moments.
Of the colonial administration and his role within it he says:
Whether we did a good job or not I don't know. We can't be like the Irishman who says, when being asked the way, ‘Well, if I were you I wouldn't start from here’. We started from here. It was one piece of cloth and one was part of the weaving process.
Mr Saville also sounds like he loved my home, or at least enjoyed his time there. I transcribe the interview. Start, stop, rewind, play. What was that? Stop, rewind, play. I hear his intonation and pauses, I hear the doubt and nostalgia that must occupy him and old chaps from the administration like him, swept away as they must’ve been in their youth by the currents of their unquestioned times.
I must not be cynical, I say to myself that is not useful. I must listen to the gaps, hear the rehearsed speech, and hear the guilt and pleasure and joy beneath this tone of ‘one must be loyal to the office’.
I must listen to the rhythms of this voice just as I want to answer back with the rhythm of my own experiences, powered by a hunger to better understand. In many of our native and local communities here in Sabah, our history is told through oral storytelling, and I have belief and loyalty to the power of that.
Mr Saville ends his interview with a tone of regret directed towards his wife and two older children:
I think going out there was incredibly selfish… I enjoyed myself immensely but it was my life and my career, and the people who suffered from it were my two older children.
Perhaps this is my favourite part of the interview because he allowed himself to be vulnerable, to allude to other people’s trauma. I am reminded, as I sit here amongst threads and threads of that ‘one piece of cloth’ to untangle, that his people too were impacted by our shared histories. Perhaps we all need to start again from here, where we each are now, and re-weave anew.
Nursery rhymes are something we never forget over the years. They hold memories of our school games and playful times with friends. They sound familiar to us even after a long time.
In this collection of oral history recordings, Iona Opie interviews a group of children from Capri. Being Italian, I’ve chosen an excerpt that sounds familiar, in which I recognise the words and rhymes.
The centrality given to children, to their voices, is the particularity of this collection: the subjects are the children themselves. Hence these recordings assume a different perspective for an oral history of nursery songs and games: the story is one told by the very protagonists. Ultimately, this creates an altogether more diverse kind of storytelling.
Simple and evocative: these compositions are designed to be easy to remember, thus they have an educational value.
Nursery rhymes are language acquisition opportunities, we master them with our peers throughout childhood, and we can recall them years later.
This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.
One of the fascinating aspects of children’s imaginative play, as celebrated on the Library’s Playtimeswebsite, is how games and rhymes evolve and adapt to reflect time and place. Two British Library recordings of thumb war, for instance, demonstrate how dialect permeates children’s play. Folklorist Steve Roud (2010: 124) notes a reference to thumb wrestling in the USA in Time magazine in 1973 and has evidence that this duelling contest has been played by British children since the 1990s or earlier. Now sufficiently established to prompt annual men’s and women’s national and international championships, the impromptu children’s version invariably features a rhyme to accompany the duel.
Recording made at Christopher Hatton School in 2010 [BL REF C1614/136]
It’s interesting that the researcher here (an American) initially struggles to understand the exact wording so asks the participants for clarification. Like many young Londoners, these children exhibit TH-fronting – the substitution of a <f> or <v> sound for <th> in words like thing (i.e. ‘fing’) and with (i.e. ‘wiv’) – and they use a distinctively London <u> vowel in the word thumb. Hence the researcher understandably, albeit mistakenly, interprets their pronunciation of thumb war ([fɐm wɔː] i.e. ‘fam war’) as farm war. She may even be influenced by subconscious associations with the social network role-playing game, FarmVille, which was extremely popular at the time.
By contrast, this sound recording of schoolchildren playing the same game in Sheffield shows a slightly different rhyme that’s equally revealing – again featuring a localised pronunciation:
The children here count from one to eight to initiate the duel and change the final declaration to prompt a thumb fight. Crucially, this only works as a rhyming couplet in the local dialect, as eight rhymes with fight [fɛɪʔ] only if both words have the vowel sound in ‘say’ rather than ‘sigh’.
Sadly I don’t know enough about the various national competitions for adults, but it would be interesting to know if a rhyme is used, and even more intriguing to discover if the rhyme varies according to where the contest is held.
Roud, S. 2010. The Lore of the Playground. London: Cornerstone Digital.
Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:
It’s perhaps not surprising that vaxand its more conventional older sibling, vaccine, were designated 2021 Word Of The Year by dictionaries in the UK and USA respectively. This weekend also sees the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) awards ceremony, which leads rather neatly to my annual review of linguistic highlights I’ve collected from mainstream media over the last twelve months in search of the 8th unofficial British Library Sports Word of The Year (SWOTY 2021). Inevitably, pandemic-related vocabulary once again featured prominently in sports coverage throughout 2021. In The Guardian alone, last year’s ubiquitous biosecure bubble subtly morphed into bio-bubble or simply bubble, while pingdemic began to appear in the sports pages from July as numerous sportsmen and -women withdrew from teams or events to self-isolate following notification of a close contact to Covid-19. Despite this, the terms selected here focus exclusively on the more enduring aspects of sporting discourse. Here, then are the ten nominees for SWOTY 2021:
February (Sir Alastair Cook responding to praise at his prediction that England would win the men’s Test at Chennai, Channel 4): even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while
February (Ebony Rainford-Brent reflecting on England’s victory in the men’s Test in Chennai): the batters set things up in the first innings
March (Pamela Cookey’s half time analysis of Severn Stars tactics in the Vitality Super League fixture against Leeds Rhinos, Sky Sports Mix): [they] had time to work that to circle edge you can see the desperation
April (Nick Dougherty responding to Butch Harmon’s comment about Cameron Smith’s haircut at The Masters, Sky Sports Golf): I think they call it a Tennessee waterfall over there
July (Mel Jones describing Imran Tahir’s extravagant dive after taking a catch for Birmingham Phoenix against Southern Brave, Sky Sports Main Event): I thought he put a bit of mayoon that
July (Liam Gallagher tweet following Emma Raducanu’s success at Wimbledon, Guardian Sport): get on the Les Dennis tday [sic] and get behind Emma Raducanu celestial talent
August (Charlotte Worthington explains her first ever in-competition 360 back flip in Olympic BMX Freestyle, BBC 5 Live): I managed to pull off the 360 back flip aka the Ferrari which we kept under tight wraps in the lead up to the games
August (Deep Dasgupta discussing the batting approach of Indian cricketers, KS Rahul & Rohit Sharma) both of them have played what we call khadoos cricket
September (Ewen Murray quoting Lexi Thompson’s opinion on the absence of European supporters at the Solheim Cup, Guardian Sport): Thompson insisted the scale of backing for the US will not apply the P-word
November (Vicky Sparks quoting Beth Mead’s own explanation of an intentional shot-cum-cross at a free kick, BBC 5 Live): she calls it a crots
December (Chloe Merrell summarising England’s victory in the second Test v Jamaica, Guardian Sport): Sophie Drakeford-Lewis was tried at wing attack
This year’s list embraces six sports – cricket, netball, golf, tennis, BMX, and football. As in previous years, cricket features prominently, undoubtedly a reflection of the sport’s notoriously arcane vocabulary, but also perhaps because the stop-start nature of the game offers greater opportunity for spontaneous chat during a typical live commentary. In contrast to previous years, seven of the ten entries are attributed to women and six relate to female sport – a result, perhaps, of the gradual, but long overdue, increase in coverage of female sport and of greater female representation in the sporting media.
The entries reveal the usual linguistic suspects, including examples of jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary, e.g. batter, circle edge and wing attack) and slang (i.e. informal forms, e.g. put a bit of mayo on, Les Dennis and Ferrari), while the phrase even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while looks like an idiom or even a proverb. The increasing influence of the Indian subcontinent on cricketing vocabulary is evident in the loan word khadoos. P-word is a code word formed by the well-established morphological process of taking the initial letter of the intended word and adding the suffix <-word>. I suspect P-word , like the blend crots, is a neologism (i.e. an idiosyncratic expression coined by the user for a one-off occasion). All ten demonstrate how press and media sports coverage is an excellent resource for discovering vernacular English.
The term batter [= ‘player who bats in cricket’] is recorded in the OED from 1773, but the most recent citation is 1854, while the hitherto more established form, batsman, has entries that run from 1744 to 1927. Until recently, for most (male?) British cricketers, batter was generally associated with Australian usage – i.e. a rare example of sporting dialect – but in September this year the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) officially adopted the form, batter, in its Laws of the Game. Promoting a gender-neutral term over a previously more widespread form is an unusual example of a governing body changing its terminology to reflect (and endorse) social change. Inevitably, the term divides opinion in cricketing circles, although the citation here pre-dates the ECB resolution. As a female ex-England cricketer, I imagine Ebony Rainford-Brent has always viewed this form as perfectly natural and uncontentious, and it’s reassuring to note that The Guardian has consistently used batter in its cricket coverage all year.
The two other items of jargon here come from netball. Watching Vitality Super League matches this season I’ve been struck by the number of commentators and players who refer to a specific area of the court as circle edge, rather than the (to me) more grammatically instinctive construction, theedge of the circle. By way of contrast, hockey players refer to the equivalent part of a hockey pitch as the edge of the circle (or, even more commonly the edge of the D). This preference for a compound noun and zero definite article in netball is confirmed by numerous netball coaching manuals, while the FIH rulebook confirms the preference for possessive ‘of’ in hockey.
While every football position I can think of and indeed every fielding position in cricket, many of which are delightfully obscure, merits an entry in either the OED or its open access counterpart, Lexico, I was surprised to discover that the netball position, wing attack, does not warrant an entry in either. Interestingly, Lexico has entries for centre, goal attack and goal defence, but not for wing attack nor for wing defence. Yet anyone who has ever played netball – presumably at least half the UK population – will be familiar with the term and has worn a WA bib to prove it. In fact, the names for netball positions – and their corresponding abbreviations – were clearly considered sufficiently mainstream to appear as clues in March this year on BBC2’s Only Connect Series 16 Final; so come on, OED: let’s have wing attack and wing defence in the dictionary.
Returning to cricket, Test Match Special commentator, Deep Dasgupta, described India’s openers, KS Rahul and Rohit Sharma, as typical khadoos cricketers [= ‘unspectacular but gritty and determined’]. ESPN Cricinfo website describes khadoos as a common label in Indian cricketing circles, especially in Mumbai, for a type of unglamorous, uncompromising cricketer with a never-say die attitude.
A 2017 article in the Hindu Sportstar uses the veiled form, K-word, to refer to the same phenomenon – mirroring analogous disguised forms, which serve as euphemisms (e.g. F-word) or as a means of avoiding offensive terms (e.g. N-word). The implication is that khadoos has negative connotations for some, which is presumably the implication here with P-word [= ‘pressure’]. Sports stars understandably go to considerable lengths to disguise any outward display of nerves, so the use of P-word here suggests that the word pressure is not even in Lexi Thompson’s vocabulary. The OED lists several ‘X-word’ forms, but I haven’t found any supporting evidence for widespread use of P-word in this sense. The construction itself is clearly highly productive as in October, B-word [= ‘banter’] appeared in The Guardian as shorthand used by some (unsuccessfully, thankfully) to try and justify the unacceptable dressing room culture experienced by Azeem Rafiq and others at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and elsewhere.
As in previous years, several entries illustrate how the spontaneous nature of live commentary, punditry and post-match interviews promotes light-hearted exchanges and playful language. Our enduring fascination with, and enthusiasm for, rhyming slang, is demonstrated by Les Dennis [= ‘tennis’], which features in the wonderful Cockney Rhyming Slang website, while Urban Dictionary records Tennessee Waterfall [= ‘mullet-style haircut’] and adding mayo [= ‘to exaggerate a story that is not that exciting in order to get a reaction from listeners’], i.e. expressing a similar notion to Mel Jones’s use here of put a bit of mayo on. Similarly typical of our individual and shared pleasure in wordplay is the form crots [= ‘cross-cum-shot’ i.e. a ball played towards goal in the hope that it will either result in a goal or a goalscoring opportunity for a teammate]. As a blend of the words cross and shot, it’s interesting to note that Beth Mead favours crots over its potential rival shoss – presumably because crots adheres more instinctively to English phonotactic rules.
I haven’t found any other reference to crots nor to Ferrari [= ‘something especially outstanding/impressive/desirable of its kind’], used here to describe the spectacular trick performed by Charlotte Worthington in winning the Olympic BMX Freestyle gold medal. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that an equally exclusive Italian sports car – Maserati – conveys an identical notion in the 1972 Monty Python bus conductor sketch, in which Graham Chapman delivers the punchline to a joke followed by ‘Boom! Boom! Every one a Maserati!’. Finally, even a blind squirrel finds a nut [= ‘even if people are ineffective/misguided, they’re still sometimes correct by sheer luck’] is recorded in the Cambridge International Dictionary, although several online forums suggest acorn for nut.
Most of this year’s entries are captured in the British Library’s Newspaper collections, National Radio Archive and UK Web Archive, proving the Library is an invaluable resource for monitoring vernacular language. And so, after much deliberation, I’m delighted to announce this year’s winner is batter - in recognition of what it represents in terms of a more inclusive future and in the hope that England might find one or two in time for the second Ashes Test!
This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.
After a summer in which most of us have holidayed in the UK, I’ve been fascinated on my travels to note a growing enthusiasm for commercial products that celebrate local speech and identity. Gift shops and craft stores now frequently sell souvenirs such as tea towels, T-shirts, mugs, beer etc. featuring local phrases or playful re-spellings of everyday expressions to reflect local accents – a phenomenon linguists call ‘dialect commodification’.
During a recent trip to Ashbourne, I was delighted to spot this framed poster of ‘The Derbyshire Periodic Table’. The display replicates the layout of the conventional periodic table, but chemical elements are replaced by a local expression with a correspondingly made-up symbol and atomic number. The entry I find particularly striking is located at the bottom of the red group on the left-hand side – the symbol Bz with the atomic number 73 representing boz-eyed [= ‘cross-eyed’].
The 1950s Survey of English Dialects (SED) documented several regional variants for ‘cross-eyed’ including glee-eyed in the North East, skend in Lancashire, squint-eyed in East Anglia and the West Country and boss-eyed in the Midlands and South. This regional distribution of boss-eyed is confirmed by a contribution to the Library’s WordBank by a speaker from Barnet, Hertfordshire, who was surprised when she moved to Merseyside to discover that speakers there were unfamiliar with the term:
boss-eyed means cross-eyed … somebody who doesn’t see straight ahead … I live in Merseyside and I find nobody in that area will understand that word
Intriguingly, although ‘boss-eyed’ was recorded frequently in the SED across the southern half of England, there were only two localities where informants supplied a pronunciation with a medial <-z-> sound – one in Lapley, Staffordshire, the other in Kniveton, Derbyshire – a village just outside Ashbourne, which is a convincing explanation for the alternative spelling in the Derbyshire Periodic Table.
SED entry at CROSS-EYED showing the form bozz-eyed in Kniveton and Lapley. Survey of English Dialects Basic Material: The West Midland Counties (1969, p.600)