Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Twittens, frellits and dumfunglers

One thing I've noticed in my move from suburb of Londinium to the Kingdom of the East Saxons is that people here are...well...different. They say 'good morning' to you. They smile at you in the supermarket queue. They hand you back the wallet (contents intact) that you inadvertantly left in a shop an hour before. And they stop their cars and make a friendly gesture for you to cross the road without a hint of wanting to mow you down. Now, all this is very strange for a cynical ex-copper more used to making sure his wristwatch is still there after shaking hands with someone. But I'm starting to get used to it, and doing my own fair share of smiling and nodding.

I was in conversation with one of our neighbours the other day; a Sussex lady, born and bred, when she happened to use the word twitten. Now, I wasn't sure at first whether I had misheard, and that she was, in fact, talking about Twitter, the micro-blogging site. I hadn't misheard. A twitten is a Sussex dialect word for a narrow alley or passage.

When one thinks of dialect, one does not, perhaps, immediately think of East Sussex. After all, Brighton is practically a suburb of London; it's only an hour and a half from the metropolis by train; and it's full of members of the chattering classes like the ones you've seen on Location cubed. But 'twas not always thus. The journey from London down to Sussex was once far more arduous and dangerous than it is now, and not something to be undertaken on a whim. Mail coach passengers were rattled around in badly-sprung horse-drawn contraptions for at least eight hours on roads that were thick with mud in winter, and dusty tracks in summer. Coach travel could also be dangerous; on one dark night the 'Independent' mail-coach overturned at Findon, throwing the passengers into the road and crushing one elderly man to death under the body of the coach. Most people couldn't afford the luxury of coach travel anyway; many never got further than the nearest market town, and a good many others never left the confines of their villages, because everything they needed (which was, in truth, very little) could be found within their own community. So it was that people in these remote areas came to have their own private vocabulary before the days of universally available newspapers and our 24 hour electronic media; and fortunately, much of that vocabulary has been recorded. I am grateful to the Rev W.D. Parish, Vicar of Selmeston, whose dictionary of Sussex dialect was published in 1875.

Here are a few dialect words that may amuse:

Amendment - manure (adds a whole new meaning to 'pleading the Fifth Amendent')

Backsters - wide pieces of wood, worn on the feet by fishermen who have to walk over shingle or soft mud. (Also known as flappers - it seems odd that such a specific item should have two names!).

Balderdash - an obscene conversation (not sure whether the lexicographer meant Criminal Conversation - the old expression for adultery).

Lawyer - a bramble bush (so named because, like lawyers, the bush is hard to escape from once it has hold of you).

Mints - the mites found in cheese or flour. Not like After Eight mints, then.

Naughty-Man's-Plaything (stop it!) - a stinging nettle.

Rebellious - bilious.

Yeasty - gusty or stormy.

I think such words add richness to the language, which I believe is becoming too homogeneous. It's my view that we should start using slang or dialect of our own making in conversation. I'll get you started with some that Stevyn Colgan and I came up with long since:

Strug - a flat piece of wood with no useful purpose.

Thwackett - two strugs tied together.

Scritchylumps - an irritation of the skin caused by sleeping in silage.

Frellit - the middle prong of a three-pronged fork. (The outside prongs don't have names. What would be the point?)

Sturmers - the buttocks.

Drongler - a novice bell-ringer.

Dumfungler - any ideas?

I look forward to hearing your own in good time, which I shall, of course, steal and send to a publisher, drang my old sturmers with a thwackett if I don't!


mo.stoneskin said...

As a Brightoner of 5 years I have to say that I haven't yet heard the word 'twitten'. I am, however, feeling a bit twitten that the damn Twitter widget on my blog is misbehaving.

"Mail coach passengers were rattled around in badly-sprung horse-drawn contraptions for at least eight hours on roads that were thick with mud in winter, and dusty tracks in summer."

That doesn't sound too dissimilar to my current Sussex to London commute! Same old same old I say.

chris hale said...

Greetings Mo.

Perhaps Brighton is a bit too cosmopolitan for the word twitten to rear its head; cool is probably more likely!

Sussex to London? Now just you watch out for their fancy Lunnon ways! Lunnon be full of quacks, belly-dancers, night-walkers and priggers of prancers!

Derrick said...

Ullo me old twatchitt!

Nice word that, isn't it? No idea what it means!

I'm afraid I don't have any very exotic words. We say "gennel" (with a soft g) for alleyway, whereas others say "ginnel" (with a hard g) for the same thing. Or "sneck" for the (yale) lock button that keeps it open. "Snib" is used by others.

Or how about "slairing" your feet? When you don't pick your feet up as you walk!

We do have rich vocabularies across the country but no-one would have a clue what anyone else was saying. A bit like Stanley Unwin!

chris hale said...

Now then, Derrick, me old furgle-mangler! How's your gloamers today?

I've heard of sneck and ginnel before. Twatchitt is a new one on me, however. It sounds like the irritating little bit of straw that works its way down inside one's smock at harvest time.

I loved Stanley Unwin. Now he's all deaddely in the groundlode. Sadly.

Derrick said...

I just knew you would know twatchitt! It is irritating, isn't it? Must get tighter elastic on my smock.

Madame DeFarge said...

I always liked bumfle and fankle, but they're not unknown to the wider world I suspect. Especially the wider world of Glaswegians. I fear that I am too much the civil servant these days and have erased such words from my everyday usage. Cutbacks you know

chris hale said...

MDF - Are we talking about creases and tangles here? Sounds like my fizzog first thing in the morning!

Stevyn Colgan said...

The first time I went to Lancashire I discovered that alleys were called snickets. Back in my native Cornwall an elleyway is a downalong or a skochfordh (pronounced scotch-firth). An old schoolchum of mine called Graham Matthews has started publishing a lexicon of Cornish dialect words here, collected by his late grandfather, the eminent historian W F Ivey.

I did recently find a wonderful book called Forgotten English that explained to me the meaning of fleam, scandaroon, mumpsimus and pismire.

chris hale said...

Thanks Stevyn. Some more delights to add to the word-hoard!

I too have a copy of Forgotten English but I can't remember where it is!

Madame DeFarge said...

I purchased Foyle's Philavery and Further Phlavery before Christmas. Highly recommend them. I have delighted in using several of those words on my own blog. If you haven't bought them, I think that you would enjoy them.

chris hale said...


I must say that Christopher Foyle's tomes look like just the thing for me!