FEATURE: TOP 5 GEORDIE WORDS by Paul Anthony Jones | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Newcastle-based language blogger and Radio 4 regular Paul Anthony Jones’ latest book, Around The World In 80 Words, is a jaunt around the world revealing the hidden histories of the words in our dictionaries. Here, the eminent logophile reveals his favourite Geordie words…

 

SCRAN

Scran is not only a brilliantly useful word, but it also has a brilliantly useless bit of etymological folklore behind it that would have you believe it’s an acronym. It’s the kind of story you’ll hear from the old guy down the pub that always stands at the end of the bar: scran, he’ll have you know, is an old army word that stands for sultanas, currants, raisins and nuts – the basic supplies once doled out to soldiers and sailors to keep them fit and healthy while they’re away from home. It’s a great story, let’s be honest. It’s just a shame it’s complete rubbish.

Scran is actually an old 18th century slang word for food or supplies (or, according to one 1725 dictionary, a drinker’s bar tab) that probably has its origins either across the sea in Ireland (where it once also meant bad luck), or across the other sea in Scandinavia. Its actual origins are sadly lost to the mists of time – but you can tell that guy down the pub scran certainly doesn’t stand for anything.

 

CLOOT

A cloot or clout is a rag or dishcloth. It’s always been one of my favourite Geordie-isms because I remember my grandma using it – and me, as a child, having no clue what she was talking about. Etymologically, cloot just a local hangover from Old English: clut was an Anglo-Saxon word for a rag or cloth patch, which for some reason survived in the dialects of northern England but not elsewhere. (Oddly it’s unrelated to cloth and clothes, which come from an entirely different Old English word, clath, for an actual garment.)

It’s also worth remembering cloot because it pops up in all sorts of brilliant phrases, like a babe of clouts (an old word for a ragdoll), a king of clouts (an overdressed man, or a bloke who looks uncomfortable dressed in sophisticated clothing), and washed with an ale clout, an old 16th century expression for being drunk. And that clout that you’re not supposed to cast until May is out? It might sound like a warning not to have a fight, but the clout here is a cloth, not a punch—ne’er cast a clout is an old bit of proverbial advice that warns against putting your winter clothing away until you’re absolutely sure that spring has arrived. 

 

SNECK

The latch that fastens a door shut? That’s a sneck, right? Well it is in the North East, at least.

It might sound like a word that should be in use everywhere, but sneck is a regional expression – albeit, a really old one. It’s first recorded in the language more than 700 years ago in the Middle English period, and probably shares an etymological connection to the word snatch (which could likewise once be used to mean a latch or fastener). But just like clout before it, sneck has somehow managed to survive exclusively in northern English and Scots dialects in particular – and pops up in all sorts of brilliant and long forgotten words and phrases. So to draw a sneck meant ‘to act slyly’ in 16th century English; a sneckbend is a sudden bend or change in the direction of a river or road; a sneck-lifter is a burglar (or, in the sense of an unwanted visitor to your home, a ghost); and to give someone sneck posset is to give them a not particularly warm reception.

 

HAPORTH

Haporth. Haypeth. Ha’p’oth. Ha’peth. It doesn’t matter how you spell it, if you grew up in the North East you were probably called a daft haporth at some point in your childhood. As an insult, it literally implies that you’re pretty much worthless – because haporth is a contraction of halfpennyworth.

 

HOWAY

No list of Geordie words would be complete with howay, a word so well-known it’s now the go-to word for anyone trying to impersonate a Geordie accent. Etymologically, it’s not the most interesting word on this list admittedly: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, howay is just built from the words how (once used as a rallying cry to marshal people together) and way (as in “away”) ran together, to give us a word that effectively means “come on!” or “let’s go!”. But as any self-respecting Geordie knows, howay is a lot more useful and a lot more universal than that, and can be used to mean everything from “be careful!” to “don’t be daft!”.

That makes howay a hard word for dictionaries to define – even the OED has to hold its hands up and explain in its definition that howay is used to express “a range of emotions and commands.” Look a bit further back in time, however, and all kinds of weird and wonderful definitions crop up. An 1825 Glossary of North Country Words, for instance, played it safe and called howay “a term of solicitation very common in Newcastle.” An 1893 dictionary of Northumberland Words explained that “the call ‘haway!’ is given to the farm hands by the woman-steward at starting or yoking time.” And as well as calling it a “term of encouragement”, the English Dialect Dictionary explains that it was once “a call to the brakesmen to lower the cage or to quicken its movement” in a mineshaft.

Around The World in 80 Words: A Journey Through The English Language is available now via Elliot & Thomson.

 

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