Yorkshire Folk Talk





Written in 1892 by the

Rev. M.C.F. Morris B.C.L., M.A.



IT is scarcely to be wondered at that strangers to our folk-talk should sometimes be at a loss to catch its meaning when by any chance they are brought into the way of hearing it. The words and phrases, and especially the vowel-sounds, are so different from those of ordinary English, that those who are at all new to them are at times sorely perplexed, and not unfrequently make amusing mistakes. I do not know if we in Yorkshire are more unconscious than other people of the use we make of unusual modes of expression: perhaps we are; certainly some of us are. I am reminded of an example of this which Professor Earle quotes in his Philology of the English Tongue. It is to the point. He alludes to it in connection with our use of the word while, which in Yorkshire does not have the ordinary signification of 'during the time that,' but is equivalent to 'until'; quite well-educated people will sometimes use the word in that sense. At a village in the south of the county, there lived a highly respected retired druggist. By way of making himself useful on the Sundays, he acted as superintendent of the boys' Sunday school. The lads occasionally were very uproarious, and when the din became quite unbearable, he always appealed to the scholars in the following set phrase :- ' Now boys, I can't do nothing while you are quiet!'

I have from time to time heard many curious mistakes made by those from a distance, in conversing with our broad-spoken Yorkshire folk. I will briefly instance a few cases of the kind.

What amusing passages have from time to time taken place in courts of law in days when education was not so advanced as it is now, and how perplexed have judges and counsel been, who were unused to the tones and expressions of our dialect, in endeavouring to understand what witnesses have had to say! Frequent mistakes have occurred through this. One such incident is recorded by a friend of mine as having happened between counsel and a little girl, who was called upon to prove that her father's housekeeper had opened and robbed a certain box. The woman admitted having opened the box, but said she did so only from curiosity, and in the little girl's presence.

The girl detailed how the woman took her into the room where the box was and then said, mud sha oppen t' box? that is, 'was she to open it?' Counsel looked puzzled, and repeated the question: 'What did she say?' But the girl's reiterated answer beat him utterly: he then turned and repeated it solemnly to the judge, pronouncing mud as in 'blood,' and saying he really could not see what 'mud' (filth), had to do with it!

In such cases as the foregoing it is well if someone is at hand to interpose and act as an interpreter. This, no doubt, has often been done. I remember the late respected squire of the parish where I live, telling me of an example of this kind which occurred in court, when he, as High Sheriff, was sitting near the judge, whose name he gave me; only in this instance it was the witness who failed to understand what was said by counsel. It was an assault case. 'Was she excited?' asked the barrister. But there was no response. The question was renewed, but nothing was elicited beyond bewilderment. Whereupon the High Sheriff whispered to the judge that he should turn the question into its Yorkshire equivalent :- Was she put about? This suggestion was acted upon, and the effect was, of course, instantaneous: 'Aw, sha was putten aboot sair,' was the speedy reply, and the examination went on.

As has been noticed in a previous chapter, one of the principal peculiarities of the pronunciation of the Yorkshire dialect is the strong tendency to adopt the eea sound in certain vowels. Thus, for instance, 'same' is always sounded seeam, but as there is another word in common use with the like pronunciation, mistakes have been sometimes made on that score: the other word pronounced 'seeam' is saim (lard). As an illustration of this possible confusion of meaning, I was told not long ago of an apprentice who took out a summons against his master on the ground that, amongst other improper food, he had, as the apprentice expressed it, seeam tiv his breead (lard with his bread), instead of butter. The presiding justice of the Peace, before whom the complaint was heard, not quite understanding the case, asked the master what he (the master) ate. 'Butter,' he replied. Turning to the lad, the question was repeated to him. He answered, seeam. Thinking he meant 'the same,' the magistrate dismissed the case without further enquiry, merely remarking 'why do you come here if you get the same to eat as your master?'

A clergyman of my acquaintance in the East Riding, told me of an amusing interview he had when first he came to reside in Yorkshire. My friend is an Irishman, and when he accepted a living in the Wold country, was as ignorant of our folk-talk as he was of Welsh or Russian. He had but just come over from Ireland, and had not had time to make the acquaintance of any of his parishioners. If I remember rightly it was on a Saturday night, and he was to do duty at the church on the following morning, when the servant announced that a man wished to see him. The vicar went to learn what was wanted. The stranger introduced himself by bluntly ejaculating, 'ah 's t' man leads t' cauls for t' chetch,' adding enquiringly, 'mun ee continny ti lead t' cauls for t' chetch?' This was a poser for the new vicar; he could make nothing whatever of it; and the Yorkshireman only repeated the question, 'mun ee continny ti lead t' cauls for t' chetch?' The other only stared in mute astonishment. Thinking, however, that two heads were better than one, he retired to the drawing-room for a few minutes, to confer with his wife, to see if she could throw any ray of light upon what this 'leading t' cauls for t' chetch' could possibly be; but being equally new to the country and its speech, it was quite unintelligible to her also. At length, after revolving the strange sounding words in his mind once more, a happy thought struck him, and he decided that this man must be a sort of ecclesiastical crier, and that as the town crier gives out public notices in the streets, so this hitherto unheard-of official 'led calls,' which was interpreted to mean giving out notices, hymns, &c., in church. So, thinking that no great harm would come if the man continued in this peculiar office for another Sunday, at all events, he so far assented to the request, though somewhat hesitatingly, and the 'leader of calls' withdrew. I imagine the new vicar expected to hear some strange performances in church on the Sunday, but all went well, and on enquiry afterwards he discovered that his solicitous parishioner was no 'caller' at all, in church or out of it, but merely a poor man who had been accustomed to cart the coals for heating the church; and as he was anxious not to lose this small part of his livelihood he determined to be beforehand in securing the work under the new régime. It would seem therefore that a touch of the Yorkshire character came out, as well as its dialect.

Among my earliest recollections are those of fishing expeditions with my father, who at that time greatly enjoyed the sport. On the occasion to which I here allude, he had a friend with him from London, who was also a keen fisherman, and they were trying their skill in a well-known trout stream in the East Riding. The day was windy and cold. There was a little lad with us from the neighbouring village, who came to late a job, or merely to look on. The day wearing on, and seeing the lad crying, our south-country friend went up to him and asked him what was the matter. Whereupon he sobbed out, 'Pleeas sir, ah 's stahv'd.' Thinking that he was famished with hunger, the Londoner, in the kindness of his heart, produced his packet of sandwiches and proceeded to offer the boy some, which to his astonishment he refused. At this I ventured to intervene as interpreter, and explained that it was the cold which made the lad cry and not hunger. The incident apparently made an impression on me. I must have been about seven at the time, but it seems as fresh on my memory as yesterday.

A generation ago it was the almost universal custom for the clergy to wear bands in performing Divine Service. One Sunday a young parson from West Rounton went to preach at a neighbouring church, and on his arrival discovered that he had forgotten to bring his bands ; whereupon he suddenly turned to the clerk and asked him to try and find a pair: the clerk hurried oft; and in a few minutes returned with two pieces of string, which he solemnly presented to the officiating clergyman. This reminds me of a little experience of my own: some years back I was doing duty for a friend, and on reaching the vestry I enquired of the clerk where the surplice was: 'It 's yonder, see ya,' says he, 'and there 's t' hassock an' all,' pointing to a cassock. There can be little doubt that if our young parson of West Rounton had asked his clerk for a cassock he would have received a hassock, and if he had demanded a hassock he would possibly have got a cassock. Such is the perversity of human nature, Yorkshire included.

Not long since I was staying with a friend near Yarm, when I was told of a ludicrous mistake made by a member of the legal profession from London, when on a visit to that neighbourhood on business. A property was for sale in the parish where my friend lives, and the said lawyer came to look over the estate for a client who had some thoughts of purchasing it. He understood but little of the Yorkshire tongue, and had no slight difficulty in understanding some of the remarks of the tenants on the estate.

On looking over the buildings of one of the farms he confronted the farmer, who, of course, instantly understood the object of the visit, and thought he would lose no time in making known some of his grievances, the chief of which seems to have been that over the gateway of the fold-yard an arch had been built, but so low that in 'leading' out manure it was sometimes impossible to take as full a load as could be wished, or, as the farmer expressed it, 'it wer varry awk'ard in leadin' oot a laud o' manner.' This remark was a sore puzzle to the Londoner. He naturally thought that a laud o' manner meant a 'lord of the manor,' but on what possible occasions, or for what possible reasons, the lord of the manor had to be carried out of this particular fold-yard on the top of a cart he could not divine, even by the aid of all the legal acumen he could command. However, it seems he took the matter into rather serious consideration, though without letting the farmer have the faintest suspicion that he thought it in any way contrary to custom that lords of manors should on certain solemn occasions be thus carted about the farm premises. He pondered the farmer's words over in his mind, and thinking that if his client should purchase the property, and the unfortunate lord of the manor should come to grief in the way he imagined, he determined to make further enquiry with regard to this hitherto unheard-of practice. He had not long to wait before he was enlightened. The same evening he met the vicar of a neighbouring parish at dinner, to whom he unburdened his mind. Being familiar with the dialect, the clergyman at once explained that the tenant did not mean to say that the lord of the manor had to put up with any peculiar treatment whatever, but that the archway of the fold-yard was not sufficiently high to get an ordinary sized load of manure out conveniently; thus, accompanied by no little merriment, was the legal mind of the stranger relieved of further anxiety on this interesting point.

It is not only entire strangers who fail sometimes to make out the peculiarities of our folk-talk: perhaps words that would be understood if spoken slowly, become unintelligible under a rapid articulation, or unusual blending of words together. As a simple example of this, I may mention a little expression that was made use of to the vicar of a parish near Whitby. He was visiting an old woman one afternoon, when she, on enquiring after the health of one of her neighbours, said something which sounded like 'dizzily gorlous?' For a moment her visitor failed to catch her meaning, but on reflection it flashed across him that the question in reality was, 'Diz a (he) hg awlus?' i.e. 'Does he lie always?' which I need hardly explain does not mean 'is he addicted to untruthfulness?' but simply, 'is he confined to his bed?'

How careful we should be to ascertain the meaning of a word addressed to us that we do not at first understand, before judging of what has been said!

A poor person speaking to a lady of her children, said by way of compliment, that she should be 'creuse on 'em' - in other words, that she ought to be very proud of them. Somehow, the lady, not understanding the dialect, could only imagine that the woman meant she should be cursed of them! And so she took her hasty departure quite horrified at this sudden and seemingly unaccountable imprecation.

Anyone unused to the dialectical pronunciation of our vowel-sounds might well be pardoned for misunderstanding our vocal treatment of the verb to shout. When our Yorkshire folk desire to attract the attention of those at a distance, they always, according to our vernacular, shoot at them, or shoot on 'em. To peaceably disposed people who are unaware of it, this local peculiarity of ours in the utterance of this word might easily be misinterpreted to mean designs of a ruffianly or murderous character. This common way of pronouncing shout in these parts reminds me of a trifling incident told me by a correspondent, which illustrates how easily mistakes of this kind occur. A Southern sportsman had come to have a little shooting with a friend in the North Riding. The gamekeeper in due course, when all was ready, led up his favourite pointer to the gentleman, and knowing well the dog's nature, thought it prudent to give just a word of caution, which was merely this: 'You maun't shoot at her, sir.' 'Shoot at her! no,' was the astonished reply; whereupon the keeper added by way of explanation, Nay, nay, sir you mun mah on her (you must coax her).

In enquiring of a child its name, care must be taken as to the form the question takes, or disappointing results may ensue.

Of the imprudence of seeking this information under the ordinary form, 'What is your name?' I have previously spoken; but still more rash is it, if on wishing to find out a child's name, you break ground with, 'Who are you?' for so you may meet with an answer you are not at all prepared for.

A clergyman near Whitby went into his school one day, and seeing a boy there whom he had not seen before, accosted him thus :- 'Well, my lad, and who are you?' The boy, thinking that the rector was making an enquiry as to the general state of his health, gave back as his response in true Yorkshire fashion, 'Aw, ah 's middlin': hoo 's yoursen?'

Many an absurd mistake has been made over our word a-gait. I was once told of a farmer's wife who took a young girl into her service from the South of England. The new-comer had never heard the Yorkshire dialect spoken before, and so, as may be supposed, she was somewhat at sea at first, and made a few rather strange mistakes. On her arrival, for instance, her mistress harangued her as to her duties, and after recounting them in detail, she wound up by saying, 'An' thoo mun git a-gait i good tahm i t' moornin an' light t' fires.' Though rather astonished, but still thinking she quite understood this injunction, the poor girl was seen wandering about the fields in a disconsolate way in the early morning, as if in search of some thing. After coming downstairs the mistress found no fire lighted, and on asking somewhat angrily the reason, the girl assured her that she had searched in all directions for an old disused gate to use as kindling (for so had she interpreted the order), but without success, and so no fire had been made.

A similar misunderstanding is recorded of a young south-country curate, who, on coming to a parish in Yorkshire, and being seen by one of the villagers shortly afterwards, was addressed by him thus: 'Ah see you 're a-gait'; 'No,' replied the clergyman, in an indignant tone, 'I'm the curate.'

As another example of a like blunder, I may mention that I heard once of a lady from the South being very greatly surprised one morning by the servant boy coming to her with the complaint that the cook gave him 'nowt bud sauce.' The mistress having her suspicions that the two were in the habit of 'differing,' naturally surmised that the unfortunate lad, who evidently got the worst of it, was complaining about what she thought was the peculiar character of his food, rather than of the scoldings with which 'Susan' was paying him out.

Canny Scotchmen, and especially Scotch medical men, are to be found all the country through, Yorkshire not excepted. In general they do not experience much difficulty in understanding our dialect, but occasionally they make a mauvais pas.

A correspondent from the neighbourhood of Kirby Moorside, tells me of one which came to his knowledge. A Highland doctor was attending an old woman in the North Riding. In the course of his visit he had displayed a certain liveliness of dispositionpossibly he did so with a view to cheering up the old lady's drooping spirits. Noticing this, the patient observed, by way of a slight check, 'you 're a wick (lively) young man.' He came from the town of Wick, and so, in astonishment, he asked her how she had found that out. She in turn could only feel embarrassed, and made no very coherent reply. What the doctor thought can only be guessed, but on relating the conversation when he returned home, he was enlightened as to the true state of the case, and so learnt that wick folks exist in Yorkshire as well as in the county of Caithness.

Here in Yorkshire we pronounce the o in such words as off, frost, lost, cost, tossed, &c., much shorter than south-country folk, who frequently draw out the o to au, making frost, for instance, sound like fraust. Another word of this kind is cough, which we Northerners pronounce like doff with the o short: if it were pronounced cauf as the Southerners pronounce it, our country people would think that calf was meant, which is always so sounded. A lady from the South of England was once talking to a husbandman at East Rounton, and happened to make the statement, 'my husband has got a cauf (cough) to-day.' Whereupon the countryman, with an interested look, took the lady aback with the enquiry, 'Is 't a bull or a wye?'

The peculiar use of the verb to want will be found noticed on another page. It is a word which is apt to be misunderstood by those unfamiliar with the dialect. I heard a rather diverting illustration of this when I was travelling some few years ago from Nunburnholme to York. When stopping at one of the stations, a passenger got into the compartment where I was. While the porter was standing with his hand on the carriage door, the passenger's dog eagerly forced himself into the compartment to his master. Seeing this, the porter observed, 'He doesn't want to go, sir, does he?' by which he meant, 'He has not to go, has he?' whereupon the other, who could not have been a Yorkshireman, surely, thinking the porter meant 'he doesn't want to go, does he?' in the ordinary acceptation of the words, answered emphatically, 'Doesn't he want to go!'

It is not always an easy matter to give a perfectly truthful evasive answer to an awkward question. A good example of success in that art was given me by the wife of a North Riding clergyman not long ago. She was visiting a parishioner, one of whose ne'er-do-weel sons had lately married a lass in the neighbourhood, whose charms were not supposed to be specially attractive. On the occasion of this visit the lady naturally, though somewhat doubtfully, enquired about the new daughter-in-law. The mother did not wish to commit herself too strongly in her opinion of the young woman, though she evidently had her feelings on the subject. The lady's question was parried in the following characteristic and delightfully ingenious way: 'Noo, ah 'll tell ya, Mrs. G.; sha 's just yan o' them lasses 'at neeabody bud yan o' mah lads wad ivver a'e thowt o' marryin'.

To the clergyman just referred to, the following truly cautious answer, such as the Yorkshireman delights in, was given by an old acquaintance from a neighbouring parish where they had lately got a new incumbent. The man was asked how he liked the new parson. The Yorkshireman, however, was not going thus prematurely to commit himself; and all he would vouchsafe to say was, 'We 've summered him, an' we ye wintthered him, an' we 'll summer him ageean, an then mebbe ah 'll tell ya !'

A good repartee is always enjoyable, and sometimes the Yorkshireman can give one with telling effect. It was said of a late Rural Dean, who had on one occasion been performing his duty of visiting the various churches in his deanery to see if they were in proper repair and keeping, that he arrived at a certain place where the church was in anything hut good order; he accordingly drew the churchwarden's attention to this, and by way of example instanced his own church, adding that he should come and see for himself what a model of cleanliness and neatness it was. But the churchwarden was not to he beaten nor in any way convinced by such an argument, cogent though it might seem; for he promptly interposed with the rejoinder: 'Aye, bud Mr. A., there 's neeabody theer gans in ti muck 't !'

A correspondent from Whitby tells me of a short conversation which he remembered as having taken place some sixty years ago, and which gives evidence of a ready wit on the part of one of the speakers. There was in one of the dales an old man named John D., a devout farmer of the old school, who attended chapel with clockwork regularity; but John had a weakness he invariably went to sleep during the sermon. One Sunday, after service (a service in which John had been nodding more than usual) when the people were going to their homes, one of the company said to John,

'John, ah think there wer sum folks asleep it' chappil tidaay!' John saw the insinuation plainly enough, but liking to think that there must have been others in the same unconscious state as himself adds, 'Aye, whya; mebbe if yan had been wakken, yan mud a'e seen em.'

I do not know what the custom in the South of England may be, but in these parts there is an extraordinary propensity for giving by-names, that is, nick-names, to people; so much so, that in many villages there is scarcely a person without one. Generally speaking, they are amusingly appropriate.
In the preface of a glossary of Mid-Yorkshire words, by C. C. Robinson, and published by the English Dialect Society in 1876, there is a quotation from a little publication printed at Richmond, in the North Riding, giving a list of by-names belonging to the men who were sent to do permanent duty at Richmond some time previously; they were taken from the muster rolls of Captains Metcalf and Stewart's companies of the 'Loyal Dales Volunteers.' I will give them here verbatim.

Grain Tom, Glouremour Tom, Screamer Tom, Poddish
Tom, Tarry Tom, Tish Tom, Tripy Tom, Trooper Tom (all
Thomas Alderson by name), Assy Will Bill, Ayny Jack,
Aygill Tom Bill, Becka Jack, Brag Tom, Bullet, Bullock
Jammie, Buck Reuben, Butter Geordie, Bowlaway, Brownsa
Jossy, Cis Will, Cotty Joe, Codgy, Cwoaty Jack, Curly,
Dickey Tom Johnny, Docken Jammie, Daut, Freestane Jack,
Gudgeon Tom, Hed Jack. Awd John, Young John, Jams
Jack, Mary Jack, King Jack (all John Hird by name), Katy
Tom Alick, Kit Puke Jock, Kanah Bill, Knocky Gwordie,
Lollock Ann Will, Matty Jwoan Ned, Mark Jammie Joss,
Moor Close Gwordie, Nettlebed Anty, Peter Tom Willie,
Peed Jack, Piper Ralph, Pullan Will, Roberty Will Peg
Sam, Rive Rags, Skeb Symy, Slipe, Slodder, Swinny,
Spletmeat, Strudgeon Will, Tash, Tazzy Will.

An old joiner at Hutton Rudby was nick-named Penny Nap, because he never charged less than a penny, even if he only napped the top of a nail.

In a village in the heart of the Wold country the following names occur:-

Bullock Jack, i. e. Jack who looks after the bullocks;
Sophie Jack, i. e. John P whose wife's name is Sophie;
Bonwick Jack, i.e. John B- who came from Bonwick;
Quarton Tinner, i. e. Quarton S who is by trade a tinner;
Zachary Ann, i. e. Ann T whose husband's Christian name is Zacharias.

Sally George would mean Sally, the wife of George, or Betty John, Betty, the wife of John Robinson. Linkie Bill would be so called because he comes from Lincolnshire; Jinny Cracker, because she is fond of a gossip or a 'crack' ; White Mary, because she is as dark as a mulatto; Tighty Thompson, because she prides herself on her smart figure; Greeat Heifer, because she is huge and ponderous; Fancy Basket, because she goes shopping with a smart-looking reticule. If Mr. Beedham has a servant called Mary, she 'gits' (i.e. is called), Beedham Mary; or if Mr. Salman has a dog named Jock, the animal will be designated Salman Jock.

In places where there are several people bearing the same name, some distinguishing mark is almost a necessity. This no doubt 'aids and abets' the habit of giving by-names; very often, however, they are given when no such quasi-necessity arises, but merely from fancy or caprice. Sometimes, again, a physical deformity or defect, or trick, will cause a man to be labelled with some appropriate by-name, which always adheres to him. Thus we find that a man who has lost one eye was nick-named 'Willy wi t' ee,' or another, who had but one arm, was always described as 'Johnny wi t' airm.'

Class by-names, as well as individual ones, are also commonly given. Thus, a tailor is called 'cabbish'; a man from a distance, an 'off chap' ; a dweller in the country, a 'cuntthry hawbuck' or a 'joskin'; or a farm servant would be called by the townsman 'boily,' from the custom of having boiled milk for breakfast.

It does not appear that our dialect is specially rich in similes. On the contrary, the illustration and the thing illustrated are as a rule one and the same : 'as bad as bad can be,' 'as mucky as mucky,' 'as sad (heavy) as sad.' Such is the usual delightfully simple form the simile takes, a form which at least has the merit of being ready to hand, but which does not betoken any great originality. Nevertheless, the dialect does possess a considerable number of not inapt illus trations by means of the simile. I will here give a few such by way of example:-

  1. As blake as a gowlan.
  2. As bliew as a whetst'n.
  3. As brant as a hoos-sahd.
  4. As breet as a bullace.
  5. As bug as a leather-knife.
  6. As dark as a bell 'us.
  7. As dark as a black coo skin.
  8. As deead as a midden.
  9. As deead as a scoperill.
  10. As deeaf as a yat stowp.
  11. As dhry as a kex.
  12. As fat as mud.
  13. As fond as a poke o' caff wit' boddom end oot.
  14. As fond as a yat.
  15. As good as they mak 'em.
  16. As hard as a grunded tooad.
  17. As kittle as a moos-tthrap.
  18. As leet as a cleg.
  19. As meean as muck.
  20. As sackless as a goose..
  21. As thick as inkle-weeavers.
  22. As waak as a kittlin.
  23. As wet as sump.
  24. As wet as thack.
  25. As yalla as a gowlan.

Most of the above will speak for themselves, or will be made plain by a reference to the glossary. On some of them a remark or two may not be out of place.

As to (4), there is an especially brilliant gloss on the skin of the wild plum or bullace which fittingly gives rise to this expression.
(5) Bug means self-satisfied, though why this term should be applied to a leather-knife is not apparent, an extended form of the saying is 'as bug as a lad wiv a leather-knife.'
(6) The Bell-'us is the Bell-house or belfrey of a church which is always a dark place.
(7) This I have only heard used by those from the dales.
(10) Another form for 'as deaf as a post.'
(11) The withered stem of the fools-parsley gives a good idea of utter dryness.
(14) I have only heard of this in the East Riding: the imaginary fondness of the yat is no doubt derived from the fact that it is always knocking its head against the post.
(16) That is to say, he is a tough fellow, there is no hurting him; he will bear as much knocking about as a toad.
(17) This is applied to anything in a highly sensitive, or touch-and-go state.
(18) This is perhaps the aptest illustration of those quoted:
the horsefly seems to settle more lightly than any other insect; when it comes upon man or beast the first intimation of its having done so is its keen bite.
(21) The fabric called inkle had a very narrow web, and consequently the weavers could sit close.
(25) and (1) The colour expressed by the word blake is a palish rather than a deep yellow: it is often applied to butter, indeed the saying 'as blake as butter' is as common as (1).

Transcribed by Colin and Pauline Hinson © 1997