How To Talk Like A Local, By Susie Dent

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This relishable book reveals the potency of dialect. Some of these words have gained nationwide popularity. "Bunk off" started in 19th-century Lincolnshire, as in "bunk around" for wandering, and became a term for being expelled from school before gaining its current meaning as a sort of civilian AWOL. Skive may be related to the French verb esquiver (to dodge), which would explain its adoption by soldiers in First World War.

However, most of the words gathered here have refused to budge from their home turf. The Devonian term dimpsy for dreamy or crepuscular is pleasingly evocative, likewise the East Midlands clammed for hungry (it may be a variant of clamp in the sense that the sufferer is feeling pinched). Equally appealing are the north country nitthered (shrivelled by cold) and daunder (Scots for saunter). Gormless, originally Lancastrian, derives from the Old Norse gaumr (care).

The delightful whim-wham (a trifling matter) is given a fanciful derivation from the Old Norse verb hvima ("to wander with the eyes as with the fugitive look of a frightened or silly person") when it seems much more likely, as the OED suggests, to be an example of "reduplication with vowel variation" found in terms like flim-flam. In his play Brief Lives, Patrick Garland plants this pleasing archaism in the mouth of Wiltshire-born antiquarian John Aubrey: "Faugh, this is mere whim-wham."

Oddly, there is no sign of one of the most famous dialectal words of recent times. Mrs Thatcher reverted to the Lincolnshire playground of her childhood when she shouted "Frit!" (roughly meaning "scaredy cat") at Denis Healey. The engaging Cockney term taters (meaning cold) makes an appearance though we're merely told that it is rhyming slang. A few taps at Google reveals the full expression is "potatoes and mould". Mystifying.

Dent apologises "to those who look up their favourite word and find it missing, but as someone raised in Yorkshire I can find few escapees from my childhood argot. She includes laiking, meaning to play a game (Norse via Middle English), ginnel for alley, scald for making tea and druffen for drunken. Perhaps she might have added chumps meaning firewood. Dent notes that local words tend to deal with the "easily accessible... rather than the abstract". In this, the book is a portrait of the British, a nation famously suspicious of abstraction.