All Hail the Vernacular! by Sandra Horn
Physiology and Biochemistry were compulsory subjects in my Psychology degree. The lecturers in both subjects were a considerable shock to us, used as we were to our laid-back Psychology lot – the Prof, wonderful Marie Jahoda, would bum cigarettes off the students, but always insisted on paying for them because smoking was a bad habit and she shouldn’t be doing it. Some of the others were happy to move teaching sessions to Bettina’s, the coffee shop round the corner. The Biochemist, on the other hand, expected us to sit up straight, raise a hand if we wanted to speak and then wait for permission, and not to argue. We could hardly believe it. The Physiologist was a woman of such extreme refeenment that she would have made the Queen look a tad common. After giving us a technical term, she would say, as if the whole idea gave her a pain in the unmentionable, ‘or, in common parlance...’ I have what I now think must be a false memory of her saying ‘crud’ as an example of said CP, but my husband (an unrefined Physiologist) says he’s never used such a term – it would be sediment or detritus. That means it was probably invented afterwards by the mega-brain and inventive nutter of the group, whose blushes I will spare by not naming him now. We were learning about differentiation in perception at the time, and he spent one whole day using a two-point schema for everything: it could only be cream or crud. Next he tried not differentiating at all: ‘I don’t differentiate between a flower and a not-flower. I don’t differentiate between an old lady and a bicycle,’ and pondering the consequences. He became an eminent Professor – I wonder if he gave up the divine nuttery? Ah, me...
Right, I’ll stop pithering about and try to get back on track now, as this is supposed to be about the joys of common parlance. Yesterday, I was stuck behind some people soodling about in the shopping mall. Soodling? Meandering slowly with no obvious purpose. As opposed to sloping, which is the more rapid, hat-brim down, coat-collar turned up, leaning slightly forward kind of walk. I could have done with more slopers and fewer soodlers yesterday, even though slopers are often thought to be engaged in nefarious deeds. Who cares? I was just trying to buy a pepper mill and get home again PDQ. There is, somewhere, by the way, a book about Sussex dialect which gets sloping wrong. The writer thinks it is ‘loping’ like a wolf. Nah. It’s sloping, like a fox on the prowl, hoping not to be seen. She (I think) also has a snigger at Sussex folk who, apparently, believe ‘fairies’ are Pharisees’. Wrong again – it’s fairieses. A double plural, just to make sure. It is very common to add an extra ‘s’, in case you’re talking to someone with cloth ears or you can’t remember if one is enough.
I was reminded again of the joys of common or vernacular words when I was given ‘Uncommon Ground: a word-lover’s guide to the British landscape ‘ by Dominick Tyler, for Christmas. He cheats a bit by making some up and adding Americanisms he happens to like. Boo. However, it is still a rich treasure-trove of clarts, crikes, grykes, daddocks, scowles, sarns, dubs, clints and the like, with pictures. By dint of some nifty knight’s-move thinking, it led me back to Norman Nicholson’s glorious use of dialect words:’ he’s getten thy neb’, ‘lifting the sneck’, the miner’s ‘segged’ hands.
And how could we describe that certain kind of weather without the Scots’ ‘dreich’? Or how could that cold, shivery, starved look be better pictured than by the Midlands’ ‘shrammed’? Hodmedods bedevil Norfolk gardens; Billiwix haunts the night on silent wings.
Gallybaggers stand guard over Hampshire fields. Dumbledores pollinate Somerset flowers
D’rackly’ in Cornwall is a wonderful ,‘sometime, maybe later’ kind of word. Terms of affection abound all over the country: hinnie, pet, chuck, tacker... There are thousands of these words from up and down the land, each one starting out as part of a very local usage, but there for us all to delight in. Long may they do so!
Tarra a bit!
Somebody who's wandering aimlessly is said to be 'mowing about' with the 'o' pronounced as 'ow'. I've never been sure whether this is something to do with harvest-time and, maybe, drunkenness - a barley mow is a barley harvest - or whether it's related to the 'mopping and mowing' that Shakespearian ghosts do.