Photograph of a street crowd in the rain

Lexical variation across the UK

Do children wear ‘crepes’, ‘daps’, ‘gutties’, ‘pumps’, ‘plimsolls’ or ‘sand-shoes’ for school PE lessons? Explore how different words for the same object occur across the UK.

If you overheard the following statement you might be able to make an educated guess about where the speaker comes from:

happen she were wearing a mask

The use of happen here meaning ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ is an example of lexical variation – differences in vocabulary. It probably locates the speaker somewhere in an area centred on the Pennines: Yorkshire or Lancashire or adjacent areas of the East Midlands. The popular image of dialect speech tends to focus almost exclusively on dialect vocabulary and although there was at one time greater regional variation in vocabulary across the UK, there remains a great deal of lexical diversity.

Observing lexical variation

All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. We can observe lexical variation – differences in words and phrases – by comparing the way English is spoken in different places and among different social groups. Despite the belief that dialect words are no longer very widely used, there remains a great deal of lexical diversity in the UK. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the variety of words used for 'bread roll' in different parts of the country. If you live in Lancashire you might buy a barm cake, whilst people over the Pennines in Leeds would probably ask for a bread cake. At a baker’s in Derby you might be offered a cob and on a visit to Coventry you might eat a batch, although each of these words refers pretty much to the same item.

Listen to these extracts of speakers using regionally specific vocabulary.

Meak, didle and crome

another skill, uh, when we used to clean the dykes out all by hand with the old meak and the old didle and crome – that's all lugging

Agriculture and traditional industry, such as mining, once provided the English language with a rich stock of dialect vocabulary. Farming, for instance, is by its nature dictated by the local landscape and agricultural practice differs accordingly across the country. Until relatively recently, local breeds of livestock and traditional farm practices spawned their own localised vocabulary, while hand-held implements for manual labour were generally locally made and thus given different names in different parts of the country. Due to the widespread mechanisation of farms and automation of heavy industry, many of these words are now no longer as widely used, as either the objects to which they refer have become obsolete or the practice has become an anachronism. Like the implements themselves, the words have become collectors' items or museum pieces, but there remains a small number of people working in traditional industries or in rural communities, for whom these words remain part of daily vocabulary.

OED entry

meak: Eng. regional (chiefly E. Anglian) implement with a long handle and crooked iron or blade used to pull up or cut down peas, bracken, reeds, etc. Also noted in Survey of English Dialects (SED) fieldwork in Garboldisham, Norfolk.

didle: (local) sharp triangular spade, used for clearing out ditches. English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) cites usage in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and also noted in SED fieldwork in Gooderstone, Norfolk.

crome: (local) hook or crook; esp. a stick with a hook at the end of it to draw weeds out of ditches. EDD cites usage in Norfolk and Essex and noted in SED fieldwork in several sites across East Anglia.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of agricultural dialect vocabulary: Wearhead, Read, Kniveton, Hilton, Warmington, North Elmham, Portesham, Peter Tavy, East Harting, Stannington, Melksham, Bleanish Island, Stonehaven and Dalmellington.

Peevers

but what, what do you remember playing as a child – as a child – hmm – eh, skipping ropes – oh yes – eh, peevers.

Traditional children‘s games and songs are a rich source of lexical variety, as the playground is full of young speakers who spend a great deal of time together and therefore develop a common vocabulary. These groups often perpetuate the names and phrases used in games passed down several generations. Even the simplest game of chase has a number of different names according to where you are in the UK – it, tig, tag or tiggy. ‘Truce terms’ – the practice of saying a word or phrase while crossing your fingers to indicate you are briefly withdrawing from a game – also have a number of regional alternatives including barley, scribs, fainites, pax, skinchies, cross keys and full stop.

OED entry

peever: (Scotland) stone, piece of pottery, etc., used in the game of hopscotch; also the game of hopscotch itself (freq. in pl., with sing. concord). EDD cites usage throughout Scotland and research by Peter and Iona Opie in the 1950s and 1960s unearthed an enormous range of regional names for hopscotch, including peevers, pallie, beds, beddy, hoppy-beds, hecky, hitchy-bay, hitchy-dabber and hitchy-pot.

Listen to the recordings featured on this site in Leeds and Dalmellington for other examples of children‘s games.

Nain

I remember my nain – when I was about four – she couldn‘t speak a worl, word of English, always Welsh, Welsh, Welsh

Kinship terms and words of endearment for members of the family still show a good deal of regional variation within the UK. The words we use when addressing our parents and grandparents vary both regionally and socially, as demonstrated by the use of mam for mother in Wales and northern England, mom in the Midlands and mum in the south, with mother often used by members of the upper middle classes everywhere. Interestingly the word nanny is used by most of us to indicate a female grandparent, but in upper-middle-class circles it might refer to a live-in child carer.

OED entry

nain: (Welsh English – north) grandmother. SED fieldwork in the 1950s noted variants including ganny, grammer, grammy, gran, grandma, grandmam, grandmayer, grandmom, grandmum, granny, nan, nana and nanny. The BBC Voices survey of 2004/5 confirmed these and other established variants such as grandmamma and nannan and also elicited numerous more recently arrived forms, including amma, baba, bube, dadi, mamgu, nani and yaya.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of regional terms for members of the family: North Elmham, Byker, Stannington, Leeds, Nottingham, Danesford and Maerdy

Mistall

and we‘d to get up and go down in – in wintertime – go down into the mistall we called it

Agriculture and traditional industry, such as mining, once provided the English language with a rich stock of dialect vocabulary. Until relatively recently farm buildings were made of local construction materials and designed to suit local farm practice. They were thus given different names in different parts of the country. Due to the widespread adoption of modern farming methods, many of these buildings are now obsolete and have been replaced by more standard constructions, although in rural communities many of the original words are still applied to their modern counterparts.

OED entry

mistall: stable or shed for cattle. EDD cites usage in Cumberland, Yorkshire and Lancashire and SED fieldwork noted variants across England including beast-house, byre, cattle-shed, cow-house, cow-hovel, cow-pen, cowshed, cow-stable, cow-stall, lathe, mistall, neat-house, shippon, shuppen and skeeling.

Listen to the longer recording featured on this site in Stannington for other examples of local words for ‘cowshed’.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.