The Ecphorizer

Essex Dialect Dictionary
John Cumming

Issue #35 (July 1984)

Why there'll always be an England

Edward Gepp, M.A., the late Vicar of High Easter, Essex, was the author of this interesting work, the second edition of which appeared in 1923.

[quoteright]In his introduction, Edward Gepp stoutly defends dialect against its detractors:

...a guillion is a stomach-ache...

40px;">Many people seem to regard dialect as mere uncouth speech, or as simply ludicrous. They can think thus no longer if they once perceive what dialect is, that genuine dialect words are as correct as any of current speech, and, as ancient survivals, are usually far more interesting. Comical indeed it is ...but it cannot be despised. Though it be laughed at, it must have the respect which is its due.

The author certifies that all the terms in this lexicon are in local use, and only a very few are obsolete.

The author deplored the previous lack of an Essex dictionary, and regarded with alarm the decline of dialect during his lifetime "under the influence of the Elementary School and of free intercommunication." In addition, social atitudes took their toll, for "When we were children we were not allowed to say afeared or drownded or to call a table-fork a prong, or a person a party. Such words were vulgar, so our parents and teachers told us. We rendered our instructors the obedience that Victorian times very properly exacted; but we now see that they did not know what they were talking about."

Among the many rather exotic offerings in this work is one especially curious for its origins: Pesky. The definition goes: "troublesome...A U.S. word, of uncertain origin. Early 19th c. One would like to think they got it from us, but there is nothing to show it."

The author gets his own back, however, with the word yank, given as meaning to move restlessly, or fidgetily. He adds, "an intransitive use of to pull, recently recorded fror the U.S., but probably one of our old dialect words."

The entries are generally less familiar than the above, however. Consider tuffin: "the wollen grip of a bell rope." This is another foreign word however, "recently imported from Norfolk. Our terms are Sally and snacing." One wonders what Little Miss Muffin sat on, in Essex.

A thoroughly curious construction, that must give one pause to reflect upon the evolution of speech, is T'year (to-year). Meaning, obviously (if one thinks about it), this year. This expression is listed as 13th century in currency. "A formation similar to to-day, to-night, to-morrow. The author finds it in (and thus dates it from) Chaucer's Wife's prologue, 168: "Yet hadde I lever wedde no wyf to-year." T'week is also recorded here. Why these two uses have vanished outside of Essex, while others, like today, have survived, is not explained.

Lay, used like lie, was correct before the eighteenth century. The author justifies this usage, apparently still in use in Essex in the 1920s, with quotes from various authors, such as Caxton, and Butler. This discussion follows a more extensive discussion of the usages of this word, including the meaning "a clover field after the crop is off. Properly fallow land, 14th c." (Our idea, and an Essex farmer's idea, of a good lay is far off indeed.) Of those earthy Angle-Saxon utterances that have been so neglected in the last few centuries there are plenty. Consider:

Beilywengins- small or sour beer. This beverage seems to have been a source of great concern to our forbearers, from the many colorful terms I have encountered that apply to it. In this ease, beilywengins seems to have evolved from belly-vengeance, an expression that suggests the root of the problem.

A Stone-horse, or stone-hoss, or stonus is a stone-ware bottle for carrying beer. The author a writes "A monitory remark to the carrier is 'moind that hoss, mite, that kicks'. Apparently an undoubted instance of that very rare thing, a rustic pun."

While we are near the subject, Muggy is given to clean half-drunk.

Chamber-lye was fermented human urine, "formerly used for many household and agricultural purposes, in washing clothes, for dressing seed, etc., and is still used as an internal and external medicament."

Bever was a worker's lunch.A 15th century term, it came, from the Old French beivre. The author offers a quote from a farmer regarding an unusually mild winter, "That was that mild that year, they set to bever in the filds the day afore Christmas."

Folksy in sound, without a doubt, is ussns, for us.  Thatns, thisns, and thusns also were observed he the author, but not in Essex.

There was a lot of French in the English countryside. Consider musheroon, representing the French mousseron. The terminal m seems to have been added in the 16th century, but not in Essex.

An ancient form of the emphatic negative (still emphatically in use) is Na(h), as in 'Na, na, I et (ain't) sech a fool." This form even seems to have preceded No by several centuries.

One wonders if Jack Sprat owes anything to "that owd hoss on't pull sprat off of a gridiron" (said of a horse that cannot, or will not,  draw)!

Starknaked is "an unauthorized" alteration from start-naked, which found use in Essex as star-naked. The author notes that the Meadow Saffron (a flower) is also called Star-naked ladies," an audacious term supported by dame-nue of the French Flora." Yet another remnant from the French is dissabil, from the word deshabille, and meaning untidy or incomplete dress.

Gentleman is recorded as a qualifier with significant shades of meaning "He's a gentleman" suggests the speaker has been given a gratuity. "Quite the gentleman" indicates a typical ("rather grand") gentleman. A "gentleman's tool" is for amateurs. Laborers use the expression of their mates, "he's a gentleman now," meaning that he has retired.

Grutch is to grumble, a gullion is a stomach-ache, grunsops are grounds of tea.

Social attitudes are reflected in the definition for liberty: "to give a woman her liberty" means to "church" her after she has had a child.  Says the author, "it is incorrect to go out til this is done. There appears to be no reason other than rigid custom, based probably on ancient superstition."    

Chapel, or "to be chapelled" is defined as a recent "Nonconformist" term, adopted from the "churching" of women in the Church of England. The author says that the proper term is to be "prayed for." The expression "to go out" is not explained in this book, but various idiomatic uses are given for go such as "Me an' mother goo for sisters" (go=pass for), "That's jes gone ten past" (of a clock), "She do go on at me shimeful" (scold).

The author is fond of capturing the language of the local Essex types in print, which makes proofreading an impossible chore. Just trying to understand the phrases thus presented is an interesting challenge. "There's a owd spuffles," "Th' housen in this ere place is all squandered about," "That'll rench down," "She do lick ye over when she come a cadgin'."

The past lease of beat is bet, heat is het, thaw is thew, and the past tense of freeze is friz (the present is also frize and the past participle froze and frorn). The past tense of roll is rool.

The following verbs are the past tense of ones in familiar use: blowed, drawed, growed, knowed, throwed, digged, bursted, casted, costed, runned, and cotched. Would you buy a used car from someone who talked like that?

Appendix VI is entitled "A GERMAN PROFESSOR ON OUR DIALECT." This was a "notice' of the first edition of the Essex Dialect Dictionary, written by Prof. Wilhelm Horn, of the University of Giessen. The article, Beibatt zur Anglia (1922) is reprinted in the appendix, in German, naturally.

Appendix IV is entitled "SUFFOLK, NORFOLK, AND CAMBRIDGESHIRE WORDS WHICH MAY BE FOUND TO OCCUR IN ESSEX." Among these we find such interesting words as clashmadang - noisy talk, "consarn your clashmadang," diddy - a term of contempt, like doddy, dotty dotty-poll, "E's one o' them Comberton diddies," flart - a fool, "A shanny sort of flart."

The first appendix is given over to a discussion if the word Tye. This word, which the author supposes to mean "an outlier from the village, usually at a meeting of the ways, often the site of a hamlet or small group of houses and a green," was noted thirty-three times by Mr. P.C. Towns, who mentioned it in notes published in The Essex Review of July, 1921 and January, 1923. The word was spotted "over the country, from Elsenham, Wimbish and Bulmer in the north to Hornchurch and South Hanningfield in the south, and from Harlow in the west to Elmstead and Peldon in the east." The author is surprised to find that there are no examples of Tyes in the 12th-13th century Feet of Fines for Essex. A genuine scholarly mystery!

Appendix II deals with with rustic humor such as these authentic nicknames: "owd ninetyribs," for a long, lean man; "owd Perushed-o'cowd" for a wheedling hand-rubbing tradesman; and "Slipp'ns," for the man who led the prayer at meetings, and always inserted the petition "Lord, pardon our slippuns." A poor, barren field was called, variously, Hungerdowns, Small Gains, Empty Purse, etc.

An old curmudgeon, responding to a wedding invitation: "Wedd'n, did ye say? ...Yes, I'll come t' y'r wedd'n. That's one happy day, ye know, and n' more arter." And another knee-slapper quoted by the author, probably from the same old coot, "When a was coort'n she, a thought a must a eat her. And, my jolly, times a wish a had."

A drunk gets his hand stuck in a pump-spout. After some struggle, he says "Now then, fair does, owd mite, no howd'n." Or try this comment, "Goo t' chu'ch? not he. He loikes t'goo where the prayer-books has got handles."

The language of Essex is partly the language of an older England, and partly the root of some of the rustic American accents that we all recognize. Some day they will only be found in books like these.

John Cumming held the position of Editor of the San Francisco Regional Mensa Intelligencer for 35 months, longer than any editor before him.  His immediate replacement, Tod Wicks, lasted 36 months before expiring in a mist of spray-glue used in pasting up the newsletters as camera-ready copy.

More Articles by John Cumming

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.