My friend Ian, who has lived all his 50-odd years in a village on the Herefordshire-Shropshire border, introduced us some years ago to an expression so localised that nobody I've tried it on in Leominster, eight miles down the road, understands what I'm on about.
"Get up the brook, Leonard," is the expression, and it is a declaration of disbelief, like "you're pulling my leg". Neither Ian nor anyone else in his village knows who Leonard is or was, and even in the next village along, you invoke Leonard in vain. There, if you tell somebody something that invites scepticism, they say "get down from the tree, Russell". Actually, that's not true, but it wouldn't altogether surprise me, such are the extraordinarily subtle shifts in dialect and phraseology in this green and pleasant land.
All of which brings me to The Wonder of Whiffling, a marvellous little collection of arcane words and phrases sent to me last week by its author, the exotically-named Adam Jacot de Boinod, who used to be a researcher for the BBC's comedy quiz, QI. It's a treasure trove of trivia, full of all kinds of fantastic words now presumably fallen into disuse. Among my favourites are "deegle", a Cheshire word for a stolen marble, and "barley-child", which is unique to Shropshire and means a child born in wedlock, but within six months of the wedding. Apparently, the term alludes to the time that elapses between the sowing and harvesting of barley, and I'm not ashamed to admit that we have a barley-child in our house, our 16-year-old daughter, Eleanor. But no deegles, I hope.
Unsurprisingly, and much as it pains me as a Lancastrian to admit, Yorkshire is probably the most prolific source of unusual English words. "Neggy-lag" is another marbles term, used in Yorkshire to mean the penultimate shot. And among many other offerings from our largest (but not quite fairest) county, Adam records legger, a man employed to move canal boats through tunnels by walking on the tunnel's roof or sides, and cheddy-yow, a call to sheep, being brought down the fell, to come closer. But it was the coalfields of south Yorkshire which, aptly, produced the richest seams of language, and I had some insight into this already, having married (shortly before the arrival of our beloved barley-child) into a mining family from Hoyland, near Barnsley. Indeed, my wife's late grandmother, Nellie, died at 98 pretty much muttering Hoyland-isms to the last. "She'll tek some britchin'," was her assessment of a fat nurse; "she's not as far through as a tram ticket" her observation of a skinny one.
Doctors and nurses, of course, give at least as good as they get. The Wonder of Whiffling also contains some of the acronyms used in hospitals, of which my new favourite is TEETH - "Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy'. My friend Jane, a former nurse, hadn't heard of that one, but did veer right off the subject to tell me about a patient she once had who was complaining about a sharp pain in the backside. An X-ray was duly taken and revealed, as clearly as could be, the words 'Made in the Isle of Wight'. It was a small glass lighthouse full of coloured sand from Alum Bay, which raises all sorts of questions best not addressed here, but sticking with the inner workings of the human body, Adam lists "nom de womb", American slang traced only as far back as 2005, for the name used by expectant parents for their unborn child. I like that, and at the other end of the mortal coil, I also like artichoke, an underworld word for a hanging (a hearty choke, you see) first recorded in 1834.
I could go on and on, but I'm running out of space. And speaking of not going on and on even when you're enjoying yourself, I once referred in this column to the expression used in Liverpool for coitus interruptus. It is "getting off at Edge Hill", Edge Hill being the penultimate stop before Lime Street station, and I was delighted to hear from a reader in the north-east a few days later, who told me that the term in his neck of the woods is "getting off at Gateshead". In the pub that night, wondering whether there was an equivalent in the Welsh Marches, I relayed this excellent information to my mate Ian. "Get up the brook, Leonard," he said.