A guddle through the dialectal wordbank

Posted by on July 12, 2011

Macmillan Dictionary’s Twitter account recently shared a link to a Telegraph story on regional English words. It has to do with a wordbank that the British Library created as part of its Evolving English exhibition. The aim is to preserve and publicise – and perhaps propagate – thousands of dialectal words and phrases.

At the end of the article is a sample of these words. I like dodderman for snail (Norfolk / Suffolk), dimpsy for twilight or just turning dark (Somerset), nesh, meaning weak, delicate, or susceptible to the cold (northern England), and guddle, meaning rummage about (Northumberland and parts of Scotland).

Many dialectal words are given to plants and animals, and they often have colourful histories. Bishybarnabee, a Norfolk word for a ladybird, might be a reference to the 16th-century bishop Edmond Bonner, aka “Bloody Bonner”, because the insect’s red and black colours were associated with the bishop’s clothes – or with his notorious deeds.

Not until my teens did I come across the name “devil’s coach-horse” for a beetle I’d known throughout childhood. We’d always called it a deargadaol /,dʒærəgə’ði:l/, an Irish word meaning devil’s beast. Though obscure outside Ireland, the word has enough currency to be used by the Irish Times and RTÉ (the national broadcaster). On Bloomsday last month, I described how James Joyce heard a Yorkshire word for earwig twitchbell – and liked it so much he immediately decided to use it in Finnegans Wake.

The Evolving English blog discusses some other words, such as the more familiar gyp, used in the phrase give someone gyp which means give someone pain, grief, or stress. The blog talks about the delight we take in “exploring, using, re-using and adapting our English to shape our identity”. Over time, some dialects thrive while others fade, and all the while they influence each other: there is a constant flux. There’s no guarantee that a useful or charming regional term will survive a generation, so it’s very worthwhile to record as many of them as we can.

What regional words and phrases did you grow up with? Which are your favourites?

Comments (12)
  • Nice to see the word ‘guddling’, Stan. My (Scottish) wife introduced me to it and it’s in regular use in the Rundell household. What do you call a ‘wood louse’ in Ireland? In Scotland, they are ‘slaters’.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 12th July, 2011
  • Some great words here. I wonder if the vampire-lovers would have taken so keenly to their tales of chaste bloodsucking if they’d been called “Dimpsy” instead of “Twilight”.

    Posted by dan on 12th July, 2011
  • Michael: In the few days since I’ve known it, guddling has had regular use in the Carey household too. I’m tempted to say we called woodlice Christian slaters in Catholic Ireland, but that would be a complete fabrication; we just called them woodlice where I grew up. But they appear to have many common names.

    Dan: Probably not! It sounds more like a Teletubby than a time for romantically evil gothic monsters to moon about.

    Posted by Stan on 12th July, 2011
  • I grew up hearing southern and midwestern US dialect, which led to some hilariously awkward moments when I worked for an Australian lady. My favorite: to me, “guff” means back-talk, as in what gets you in trouble with your parents. My boss laughed uncontrollably at my statement, “You set the rules and don’t take any guff about it.”
    “Oh jeez, what did I say now? What does ‘guff’ mean to YOU?” I asked.
    Shrieking with laughter, she managed to explain “It’s a faaaaaht!”
    (I suppose you could consider that “back-talk” of a sort.)
    So that’s been my favorite bit of dialect ever since, because deep inside I’m still 12. :-) And my ribs still hurt with the memory of laughing that hard.

    Posted by Karen on 12th July, 2011
  • Stan:
    When I was one and twenty, I spent a summer in southern Maine building wooden boats. One of the local words I took away was “warmish,” as in “It’s a bit warmish tonight,” spoken in the local “Down-East” accent.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 12th July, 2011
  • Karen: Funny story! To me, guff primarily means vacuous or meaningless talk, but I’ve also used it as you do, to mean back talk. Apparently it has the sense “bad smell” in Scotland; there might be a connection there with your former boss’s understanding of the word. I’ve never heard it used like that, but I remember my cousins (from another part of Ireland) using scruff to mean fart, also as a verb: “Who scruffed?” It always sounded strange to me as a kid. But thinking about scruff and guff now, together with whiff and niff (and perhaps others), all referring to a bad smell, it seems -ff could be a phonaestheme.

    Marc: I take it warmish means what it appears to mean: quite warm? In that situation, I would generally use mild, but I like having options. Sometimes it’s a “soft night”.

    Posted by Stan on 13th July, 2011
  • [...] Macmillan Dictionary Blog provided guidance on the British Library’s dialectal wordbank, and told us about “not exactly” as a polite-ism in British conversation.  The Economist’s [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 15th July, 2011
  • [...] “A guddle through the dialectal wordbank” offers a quick rummage, or guddle, through some of the vocabulary I encountered in a project by the British Library that aims to collect regional English words. I also introduce deargadaol /,dʒærəgə’ði:l/, an Irish word that crossed over into my idiolect when I was a child. If you were wondering about the dimpsy doddermen in the post title, wonder no more: I like dodderman for snail (Norfolk / Suffolk), dimpsy for twilight or just turning dark (Somerset), nesh, meaning weak, delicate, or susceptible to the cold (northern England), and guddle, meaning rummage about (Northumberland and parts of Scotland). [...]

    Posted by Dialects and dimpsy doddermen « Sentence first on 4th August, 2011
  • I’m just (re)reading RLS’s Kidnapped, and found this near the beginning of Chapter 20:

    “We spent a great part of our days at the water-side, stripped to the waist and groping about or (as they say) guddling for these fish.”

    Posted by John Cowan on 4th August, 2011
  • Lovely example, John! Thank you for adding it here.

    Posted by Stan on 5th August, 2011
  • My grandmother, originally from Sunderland, spent most of her life in Suffolk and used several expressions I’ve never come across since. Notable ones were ‘hobnie dod’ for snail and “hostropolus’ meaning to get stroppy/in a huff. Interested to know if anyone else heard of these? Other personal Suffolk favourites include; “getting in a scrap”, meaning to fight/scuffle and “sheers, ba” meaning thanks mate, (a take on cheers, boi/boy, i think.)

    Posted by Sali on 17th October, 2011
  • I’ve never heard either hobnie dod or hostropolus, Sali, but they’re charming expressions. Getting in a scrap is comparatively widespread and well known. I wonder if it’s related to scrape — you can get into those too.

    Posted by Stan on 17th October, 2011
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