Get your mazzard round these coglers

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The Independent Online
I came across a book on my dictionary shelf the other day called Wiltshire Words - A Glossary of Words used in the County of Wiltshire, which I couldn't remember having bought. This turned out to be for the simple reason that I hadn't bought it - a compliment slip fell out saying "With the compliments of the Wiltshire Life Society". I couldn't remember having ever received it either (or written to say "Thank you"), so with the energy born of guilt I started browsing through it, and I am glad I did so, because I think it may change my life.

This glossary is not a modern one. It is a reprint of one that appeared 100 years ago, produced by a team of gentlemanly philologists anxious to catch the form and flavour of Wiltshire dialect before it faded away, as most of it has. Many of the words, of course, have simply vanished with the things they describe - all the old agricultural tools, and the various ways of spreading out grass to dry, and animal words like "Martin" ("a calf of doubtful sex").

But even the obsolete words give a definite flavour of the way life was lived back then ...

"Coglers: The hooks, with cogged rackwork for lifting or lowering, by which pots and kettles were formerly hung over open fireplaces. Now replaced by 'Hanglers' "

Coglers? Hanglers? I have never even heard these words before. On the same page of the glossary with "Coglers" is "Cocky warny", which is another name for leap-frog, and "Codlins-and-cream", which I dimly remember having come across in flower books. Yes, apparently codlins-and-cream is "The Great Hairy Willow Herb, so called from its smell when crushed in the hand ..."

Ah, but what are codlins and what do they smell of? The Victorian authors assume that the reader will know, but I don't know. So I look it up in a modern dictionary and it is not there, though it does give "codlings" as "small apples" which may well be the same word ...

All obscure and far away. And yet on the opposite page it gives the word "Conkers", which it defines as "a boy's game, played with horse chestnuts strung on cord, the players taking it in turns to strike ...", and you think to yourself, "Well, everyone knows that, why bother to put it in?" And then you think to yourself, "No, hold on, if they put 'conkers' in a regional glossary it can't have been well-known at the time - it must have been a Wiltshire term which has become well-known since."

There are other words like that in the book. "Glory-hole", meaning a tiny space which takes odds and ends. "Moreish", referring to food which is so delicious that you can't help wanting more. Now, I had always thought that "moreish" must be a new trendy coining, and that "glory-hole" must be common slang, but no, there they both are listed as Wiltshire rarities 100 years ago, little bits of Wiltshire that managed to escape from home and make it big nationally.

Well, if "moreish" and "glory-hole" can make it into the language, so can other words, and I have been looking through the ancient glossary for words which I reckon might profitably be brought back into modern English. I quite like the sound of the word "mazzard", which has two quite different meanings.

1. A small kind of cherry. "Merry" is the usual Wiltshire name, "Mazzard" being more Devon and Somerset.

2. The head, but only in such threats as "I'll break thee mazzrd vor thee!"

I also like the sound of the old word for greater stitchwort. I am the first to admit that I do not talk about stitchwort much (though I can recognise it all right) but if I were to talk about it, I would much prefer to call it "Mother Shimbles Snickneedles", as they used to.

Not all ancient Wiltshire expressions were wordy. How about "Anan"? Or, in its shortened form, "Nan"? This, apparently, meant "What do you say?" and was used by a labourer who did not quite "comprehend his master's orders". This is an expression we still need today. When the management talks management talk, or John Birt delivers another opaque order to the BBC, I would like to see the workforce going around saying, "Anan?"

The glossary notes that "Nan" is still occasionally used in North Wiltshire but that it is almost obsolete. Yes, language comes and language goes. Even today, one year young men are calling each other "dude" and the next year nobody knows what it means. It says in the glossary that "Coop! coop!" is the usual call to cows to come in. Do people, a hundred years later, ever say this?

We apologise for Mr Kington's bucolic mood today. He will be back to normal tomorrow.