Saturday, 18 August 2012

English Words


A tunky pig?
          As a child, I often heard the expression, ‘fat as a tunky pig.  My aunt’s over-fed dog, for instance, was often said to be, ‘fat as a tunky pig.
          I asked my father (who I regarded as a walking encyclopedia) how a tunky pig differed from other pigs, and was astonished when he didn’t know.  (But, to his credit, he admitted it.)  “I suppose,” he said, “it was a breed of pig.”
          I left it at that until, years later, I was researching my book, Christopher Uptake (available here, as an e-book.)  This involved finding out about the Catholicism and saints of the 16th century, and I happened to read about StAnthony the Great.  His emblem was a pig; and he came to be regarded as a saint who looked kindly upon all pigs.
Christopher Uptake by Susan Price
          It’s recorded by John Stowe that, in Elizabethan I’s reign, and probably earlier, market officials would not allow ‘unwholesome’ or underweight pigs to be sold.  Instead, they were marked by having their ears slit, and turned loose, to feed on the rubbish in the city streets.  Since all pigs were considered to be in St Anthony’s care, they were known as ‘St Anthony’s pigs,’ and left unharmed. They thrived, and soon learned to follow people who had food, making a bit of a nuisance of themselves.
          So, Stowe says, if someone pestered you for a favour, they were said to be following you ‘like a tantony pig.’  And someone who obviously fed themselves well was, ‘as fat as a tantony pig.’
          I had forgotten all about my childhood puzzlement, but when I read this, light broke in upon me.  “As fat as a tunky pig!”  ‘Tantony’, corrupted and contracted from ‘St. Anthony’ had suffered further in being passed down through generations of Protestants and – being my family – athiests.  Protestant athiests, if you will.
          Since Stowe explained its meaning in the 1500s, presumably it was an expression which was beginning to puzzle people even then.  I’m amazed by how far it staggered on down the centuries – 400 years, at least -  in frequent use by people who didn’t know what a ‘tunky pig’ was.  They probably just liked the sound of it.
          But words and phrases do survive, much better than people.  Perhaps they’re what Dawkins would call ‘memes.’
          Take the expression, ‘down in the dumps,’ meaning ‘depressed.’   How old would you say that was?  I’d assumed that it was 19th Century, perhaps a bit later – the kind of phrase found in one of those beautifully drawn Punch cartoons with a novella for a caption.   I was astonished to find it in Christopher’s Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, written in 1589 or 1590:

BARABAS. Go tell 'em the Jew of Malta sent thee, man. ..... Why, how now, Don Mathias, in a dump?

          And that racy 1970s expression ‘Come back to my pad’?  - 16th Century beggars’ cant.  They carried with them a rolled up sleeping-pad, which they often left outside towns, in lonely barns, while they made forays.  At night, they ‘went back to their pad.’  Why this re-surfaced in the ‘70s is anybody’s guess.
          That word, ‘cant’, which my Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘language peculiar to a specified group: thieves’ cant… Origin, 16th century, in sense "singing", later "whining speech", as of a beggar.'
         My mother often used the word.  She’d come in crossly, saying of someone she’d met, “Her kept me canting above half-hour and I’ve so much to do!”  Or, “Standing here canting woe mek the babby a new frock!”  For her, it meant 'gossip' or 'idle talk.'
          Coming from the Black Country, where the dialect is all that remains of Middle English, I learned a lot of very old words, which were used casually, in everyday speech.  ‘Wench’ for instance.  There was nothing ‘humorous’, as the OED puts it, or self-consciously quaint about our use of the word.  Nor did it have any sense of ‘prostitute’ as my OED insists the word originally meant.  It simply meant ‘girl’ or ‘young woman’ – just as the northern ‘lass’ does (Old Norse: ‘Laskura’, unmarried.)
          ‘Our Wench’ meant ‘my sister’, as ‘Our Kid’ meant ‘my brother’.
         An editor once refused to allow me to use ‘Our Kid’ in this sense in my book, Twopence A Tub, set in the 19th Century Black Country.  ‘Kid’ was ‘an Americanism’, she said.  I didn’t believe it then, and I see that my latest OUD (2009) gives its derivation as ‘Middle English, from Old Norse kith.’  As in ‘kith and kin’, I guess.  Ha!  Writer, 1: Editor 0.
          When, as an ‘A’ level student, I read of the king’s ‘reechy kisses’ in Hamlet, I didn’t need to look at the notes, because my mother was always wiping us down while exclaiming, “Yo’m reesty, reechy, riffy, dairty, like some kid nobody doe own!”
          When I came across ‘gledy’ (fiery) in Chaucer, I was already familiar with it because of the often heard description of people with a raucous laugh or voice: ‘like a gleed under a door.’  This, it had been explained to me, was when a small piece of burnt coal, a gleed, became trapped under a planking door and was scraped across uncarpeted, bare tiles or stone flags when the door was opened or closed.  The noise was painful.  So I knew that ‘gledy’ was associated with fire and burning.
          One more Black Country word from my childhood: malkin.  I used to think it was spelled ‘mawkin’ because that’s how it was pronounced.  It was often used affectionately, but means, ‘idiot, fool, silly person.’  I thought of it as ‘slang’ and never bothered to look it up – but I was flipping through my parents’ dictionary one day, and happened to see it, as the last entry at the bottom of a page: malkin.  It isn’t in my OED Concise, but I remember that the old dictionary gave its definition as ‘simpleton’ and said it was derived from Old English.       
...Choose me,
You English words? 
 
...But though older far
Than oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love. 
 
Edward Thomas.
 
          I'm always delighted to learn new dialect words, if you know any!

 

12 comments:

=Tamar said...

In the 1970s, rockets were being sent up to orbit. When they landed, they landed on a crash pad. When hippies were flying high on pot, they eventually would come down, and crash, and need to sleep it off. The friendly place where they could sleep was a crash pad.

=Tamar said...

My mother used to use "gorming," meaning "big and clumsy to carry but not heavy," a definition with which the O.E.D. concurs. She also used "womblecropped" which means "emotionally upset enough to have an upset stomach."

JO said...

My father and his family used to call the toilet the 'nitty.' I think it's a Newcastle word - but we were the only London family to use it. But I may be wrong - anyone else heard of it?

Katherine Langrish said...

'Pogged' is a Yorkshire Dales word for being so full you can't eat another morsel. 'I'm pogged.'

Susan Price said...

Tamar - loved 'crash-pad'! Thanks for giving me a laugh! Love 'gorming' and 'womblecropped' too. Hadn't come across them - but I can see how your crop would womble if you were upset!
What a wonderfully concise and useful word 'gorming' is! I often have to struggle with things that are gorming, but had to use several words to describe the situation. Now I can just say, 'It was gorming.'

I have heard 'nitty' or 'netty' Jo, though it's more a northern than a Black Country term. We would say 'bog' or 'boggin-hole'.

'Pogged'! - Love it, Kath. We would say 'flay-cracking', as in, 'I'm so full you could crack a flay (flea) on me belly.'

madwippitt said...

I remember reading about the Tantony pig in One of Eleanor Farjeons Martin Pippin books! Interested in 'malkin' - so does this mean that Grimalkin the witches cat really means it's a grey idiot? Mind you, it is a cat so ...

Poor Blot. He's obviously heard the story of Shrodinger's cat.

Joan Lennon said...

Great post and comments - new/old vocab! I was also struck by your Protestant atheism - definitely different from Catholic atheism, I think.

Susan Price said...

I'd never thought of the 'malkin -Grimalkin' connection, Madwippit. I think you may be right! 'Simple' is a name often given to a cat - Beatrice Potter's cat in The Tailor of Gloucester is called Simple.
And Joan - yes, it's like the old tale of Christian and Jewish intellectuls marrying. Both were athiests, but couldn't decide which religion not to bring the children up in.

Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth said...

Fascinating post. 'Manky', 'fettle', come to mind. Where does Blot keep his knife?

Susan Price said...

Thanks Freyalyn. I often use 'manky' - my OED says it means 'dirty and unpleasant', which I agree with. Says it dates only from the 1950s, but then gives its origin as the Old French 'manque' meaning maimed or defective.
'Fettle' I understand to mean 'to make spick and span, to put in good order.' The OED says it means to trim or clean up rough edges, to repair, from the Old English 'fetel.'
As for where Blott keeps his knife, I wondered that myself, but much about Blott is puzzling. As he's a muse, I suppose he can produce anything he likes, as an idea - but if he's a muse, why does he need to go to the Vet? I fear we shall never know the answers to these and many other questions.,, They are things in which mere mortals should not meddle.

me. said...

Fat as St Anthony's pigs makes sense. But the explanation I was given is that 'tunkey' is turkey. Around here (The Black Country- Halesowen, Dudley) pigs were fattened up for Christmas, this being cheaper than buying a turkey or goose: so the saying is 'Fat as a Christmas pig'. As is the way with language and legends, both versions are probably as true as each other :)

Susan Price said...

Hi 'me'! - Another Black Country-ite! I see your point about the Christmas pig being a substitute for turkey, and 'tunky' and 'turkey' sound a little alike. It's possible, but personally, I still think that 'tantony' is the more likely derivation, if only because people had obviously learned 'tunky pig' as an expression without understanding it. If 'tunky' had meant 'turkey', there would have been no puzzle. Everyone knew what a turkey was.