GROCKLE.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Daniel Martin (see this post), and once again I’ve learned an excellent word. In the long and absorbing chapter “Phyllida” (which could stand on its own as a story about first love), he talks about “the countless Midland and North-country grockles that invade the West every summer”; a trip to the dictionary revealed that “‘Grockle’ is an informal and often slightly derogatory term for a tourist.” I quote the opening of What is the origin of the word ‘grockle’?, from Oxforddictionaries.com, which goes on to tell the following interesting story:

It was first popularized because of its use by the characters in the film The System (1962), which is set in the Devon resort of Torquay during the summer season. Some older dictionaries suggested that it might be a West Country dialect word. Other scholars have put forward the theory that it originated in a comparison of red-faced tourists (wearing baggy clothing with handkerchiefs on their heads) to ‘Grock’, a clown and music-hall performer who was famous in the first half of the 20th century.
The word ‘grockle’ was indeed picked up by The System‘s scriptwriter from local people during filming in Torquay. However, it was apparently not an ‘old local dialect word’. According to research by a local journalist in the mid-1990s, the word in fact originated from a strip cartoon in the children’s comic Dandy entitled ‘Danny and his Grockle’. (The grockle was a magical dragon-like creature.) A local man, who had had a summer job at a swimming pool during as a youngster, said that he had used the term as a nickname for a small elderly lady who was a regular customer one season. During banter in the pub among the summer workers, ‘grockle’ then became generalized as a term for summer visitors.
This development seems to have occurred in, or only shortly before, the summer in which The System was filmed: the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary has no examples of the word dating from before the release of The System (though one or two people from the south-west remain convinced that they knew it before then).

Now, that’s what I call lexicographical sleuthing! And I love the sly final parenthesis; the older I get, the more I realize that people’s self-reporting about language is utterly worthless. We’re all too ready to convince ourselves that we’ve been saying something all our lives, or heard it back in our hometown in the ’50s, when in fact we picked it up from a magazine or movie much later.


Another new word to me (albeit a much less useful one) occurs earlier in the same chapter: “He must go round by another lane, behind the farm, ‘up over’, walk along the top of the hill till he came to the beechwood, enter it where there was an old stone linhay, in ruins and covered in ivy…” “Linhay” turns out to be a West Country dialect term (of unknown origin) for a storage shed; the interesting thing is that the phrase “an old stone linhay” occurs in Galsworthy’s Beyond (1917): “An old stone linhay, covered to its broken thatch by a huge ivy bush, stood at the angle where the meadows met.” Deliberate allusion, unconscious reminiscence, or pure coincidence? You be the judge.

Comments

  1. octopod says:

    Very interesting! I’d naively have thought it would have something to do with grackles, which are migratory birds, but now I realise that’s a North American genus.

  2. the older I get, the more I realize that people’s self-reporting about language is utterly worthless. We’re all too ready to convince ourselves that we’ve been saying something all our lives, or heard it back in our hometown in the ’50s, when in fact we picked it up from a magazine or movie much later.
    What then do you think about the reliability of what interviewees volunteer to field linguistics workers, or provide in response to questions by the latter such as 1] “Did your parents say that in the same way ?”, 2] “Have you always used that expression ?”.
    I would imagine that reliable data can be obtained only by *never* injecting questions intended to stimulate self-referential/self-conscious appraisal, such as 1] and 2]. Even holding conversations with native speakers is risky, because a linguist will surely be tempted (consciously or no) to lead the conversation in the direction of what he is trying to find out.
    The most reliable data would result from simply listening to the native speakers converse with each other.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    The most reliable data would result from simply listening to the native speakers converse with each other.
    Grumbly, how do you arrive at these flashes of genius?
    In fact, you would have to be very careful with the setting, because people will modify their language usage depending on the specific occasion and who’s present.

  4. We’re all too ready to convince ourselves …
    Oh, indeed. Cognitive issues. The whole reality that memory is reinvented throughout our lifetimes. I have a friend who’s involved in local history: transcription of personal accounts. In discussing this with him, I frequently have to bite my tongue over what I think: that oral history, including memories of language, is mostly bilge except in the most general terms. I’m of an age to remember the Grockle in Dandy – whether that etymology is correct, I don’t know, but Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that it dates no older than 50-ish years ago: see here.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I grew up not a million miles from Torquay (less than ten, if that’s not precise enough) and although I don’t remember the word from the 1950s (outside Dandy, a journal I knew well, though it was disparaged by adults, who thought Eagle much more suitable for young minds), I’m pretty sure I heard it in the 1960s, as a word for people from London. As I understood it it was a riposte to the term “yokel” used by visitors to Devon for the locals (come to that they weren’t too keen on being called locals, either). (Torquay is not particularly agricultural, but the village where I heard the word is.) I don’t find the etymology from Dandy very convincing, because there is no similarity in meaning.

  6. grackles, which are migratory birds, but now I realise that’s a North American genus.
    At least one species is native to the Middle East: Tristram’s Grackle

  7. Just over the border, the Cornish version of a neighbouring Devon “grockle” is an “emmet” – it’s all very stereotypically West Country.
    1. an archaic or dialect word for ant.
    2. Cornish dialect a tourist or holiday-maker.

  8. There must be countless words for it. In a part of the New England shore that my family frequently vists, especially in tourist season, the word for people like us is skewks (maybe also spelled skukes).

  9. I’m not sure if I believe the story of the quoted “local man”. In my college fraternity, when it was asked where someone’s nickname came from, there were usually multiple brothers who believed, and were ready to assert, that they themselves had come up with it. In some cases they would all agree about the conversation it originated in, but not about which individual was responsible; in other cases they wouldn’t even agree about that.
    In the case of “grockle”, for example, it’s possible that the man didn’t consciously notice that it was emerging as a word for tourists in general until after he had applied it to that lady. His own use of it could then have been either independent of the emerging sense, or else subconsciously influenced by it.

  10. Graham Asher says:

    The other common word with the same meaning is ‘emmet’, which is (as every schoolboy knows) derived from the same Old English word, aemete or some such, as our modern ‘ant’.

  11. dearieme says:

    “In fact, you would have to be very careful with the setting, because people will modify their language usage depending on the specific occasion and who’s present”. Och, just hack their voicemails.

  12. I grew up near and went to school (forty-to-fifty-odd years ago) in northern Blackpool, where ‘grockle’ was the standard term for holidaymakers. Since moving to Spain I’ve often wondered about its slight resemblance to the Spanish colloquial term for foreigners, ‘guiri’.

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