Over the last six months, Alexandra Medcalf’s vocabulary has expanded considerably. Charged with compiling a new dictionary of historic Yorkshire dialect, she has been trawling the archives of York University to trace the roots of some 9,000 words, but admits that some have proved more useful than others.
To date she hasn’t had much opportunity to show off her knowledge of ‘smoot’, a small hole at the base of a hedge where hares pass through and these days it’s not often that the headless, wedge-shaped iron nails known as ‘sparables’ come up in conversation. However, there are other long-lost words which Alexandra is determined to revive.
“Winter hedge is one of my all-time favourites,” she says. “It was the old word for clothes horse and we know it was used in places like Slaithwaite and the Holme Valley right up until the 1980s. It comes from that fact that during the summer, in ancient times, people would hang their clothes out to dry on the hedge. When it was too cold to do that they would bring them indoors and it made sense that they referred to the contraption they hung them on as a winter hedge.
“It has much more of a ring about it than the plain old ‘clothes horse’ and it’s definitely one word that I think we should bring back. In fact I have already started using it in the hope it catches on.”
There are others too. Alexandra would also like to the see the return of ‘hustlement’ which was once used to describe the odds and sods of households furnishings and instead of talking of sunset, she would like to make the case for the 15th century equivalent ‘day-gate’.
“What’s brilliant about some of these dialectal words and phrases is that they are so clear, so literal,” she says. “People often talked of doing something ‘hand over head’ which meant acting rashly or without deliberation. That’s definitely one whose comeback is overdue’.”
Hard copies of the Yorkshire Historic Dictionary are due to be published at the end of the year and the book will be a treasure trove of forgotten and lost words. The project, which launched last November, is being funded by the Marc Fitch Foundation which was looking for a way to honour their late chairman, local historian and Yorkshireman David Hey.
“Chris Webb, who is the keeper of the archives at the Borthwick Institute here at York University heard about the foundation’s appeal and at the same time discovered the work of Dr George Redmonds,” says Alexandra. “Born in Bradford, he was also a local historian, had worked closely with David Hey on numerous projects and over the years he had also collected thousands of dialect words from across the county.
“They had all been carefully written on index cards, complete with a definition, and source references and Chris rightly thought that if we could build on Dr Redmonds’ work and publish an actual dictionary then that really would be a fitting tribute to David Hey.”
Towards the end of last year, Alexandra received an email from Dr Redmonds, who had spent the previous 12 months transcribing his own handwritten catalogue. The document ran to some 400,000 words and for the last six months she had been hard at work editing the entries, corroborating the sources and making it internet friendly.
“It’s painstaking work, but we want to be able to refer people to source material which is available online,” says Alexandra, who hails from Lancashire, but can trace one side of her family to this side of the Pennines. “That’s tricky when you are talking about dialect words, which aren’t the kind which were used in formal documents. Instead you need to look at inventories and more informal written letters and papers.
“What’s really lovely is that I have already learnt so much. Wind back a few hundred years and you suddenly find that there wasn’t just one word for nails, but a couple of dozen and each one described a particular design and shape. It’s the same with windows and carpentry joins and honestly, it has made me look at buildings in a completely different way.
“It’s the same with snoot. I never knew there was a word for the gaps in hedges, so I never looked for them. Now I do, whenever I am out walking I can’t help but see them.”
As well individual words, Dr Redmonds has also amassed a significant collection of by-names, which were used as easily identifiable nicknames in places where many already shared the same surname and these will also be included in the dictionary.
“These are fascinating to look through,” says Alexandra. “He found a Richard Aydrunken who was a carter employed at Bolton Abbey around 1300, then there was William Fatlad, who lived in Pickering in the 1330s and who knows why Agnes Mullok earned her name, but given mullock was a word for rubbish then we can only assume it wasn’t a compliment.”
With fears that as we become a much more mobile society, individual dialects are being lost, the project is a timely one and will extend beyond the published dictionary, which roughly covers the period from 1100 to 1750. Working in partnership with both Dr Redmonds and the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Record Service, the team at York University is also planning to launch of an online version of the dictionary were people will not only be able to search for words by area, but will also be able to contribute their own favourite examples of dialect.
“We didn’t want this project to stop at the publication of one dictionary,” adds Alexandra. “David Hey was a huge history enthusiast and it felt important that through this memorial to him we also found a way of engaging people. Everyone has a word they remember their grandma using or a phrase that they suddenly realised was specific to where they grew up and the website will be a portal for all of those conversations.”
Once up and running, the Yorkshire Historic Dictionary website will also help debunk a few myths and prove that some words are not so historic as they might at first seem.
“Snickelways is a good one,” says Alexandra. “It sounds like it must have first emerged in the streets of medieval York, but actually it was invented in the 1980s by Mark Jones. He was the author who wrote Around the Snickelways of York, and it’s a portmanteau of the words ‘snicket’, ‘ginnel’ and ‘alleyway’.
“It has become part of the city’s vocabulary and I love that. It shows you that language is always evolving, words come and words go and that everywhere has its own peculiar and particular expressions.”
To find out more follow Yorkshire Historic Dictionary on Twitter @Yorks Dictionary
Snoot: A hole at the base of a wall or hedge, allowing animals to pass from one enclosure to another from hares to sheep. Also used for the small holes which bees use to access a hive.
Quarrel: A square or diamond piece of glass, the kind used in lattice windows.
Sparable: A small headless wedge-shaped iron nail, said to be a spelling of ‘sparrow-bill’ ie. it looked like a sparrow’s beak.
Chincough: An epidemic distemper common in children, now more usually called hooping cough.
Quishing: Typical obsolete spelling of cushion.
Damsel: An implement used in the textile trade, possibly a hand loom accessory.