The BBC’s A to Z(ed) of Isms series of short video clips includes Britishisms (2:43), worth watching just for the beguiling narration by Ian McMillan (“known for his strong and distinctive Barnsley-area accent”); I, for one, was familiar neither with numpty nor mucker. And it uses the fine linguisticism isogloss, to boot. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I’m reminded of an American friend of mine who spent a few years in England. She was very disturbed at first when people she had arranged to meet would greet her by saying “y’alright, then?” or variants thereof. She would respond, yeah, I’m fine, why do you ask, do I look sick?

  2. Thanks Hat, Brit here, used to live in Leeds just up the road from Barnsley.

    Yes McMillan’s accent is Barnsley-area, but by no means ‘strong’. Perhaps he toned it down for the video? And a strong Barnsley accent is not as impenetrable as Sheffield or further into the S. Yorkshire Pennines/Peak DIstrict.

    Numpty I first heard in S. London suburbs. I think it was made famous in a comedy series — Catherine Tate? A Barnsley/Yorkshire equivalent would be “doilem”/”doylem” — that’s rather more acerbic.

    Mucker I think of as military slang “me ol’ mucker”/”mucking in”. It’s also popular in New Zealand.

  3. Nice to hear from a local!

  4. “Numpty” I always thought was Scottish?

    “Mucker” certainly is military slang – your “mucker” is your “oppo” (shortened “opposite number”), your closest companion within the platoon. In the US army, regrettably, they use the phrase “battle buddy” which sounds somewhat juvenile. But I’m not sure if “mucker” started in the military, in which case it might well be an import from another language, or whether it’s regional BrE that made its way into military BrE.

  5. Alastair says

    From North Yorkshire, can confirm doylem as widely used when I was a child. “Marra” was more common than “Mucker” as a friendly term though. Some other things that I think were peculiar to Yorkshire were “Spice” for sweets/candy, “Brass” or “Kel” for money, “Fettle” for to put right

  6. David Marjanović says

    I know numpty from the Internet, quantum-delocalized, and figured it was short for numbskull

  7. ajay, OED has “mucker” as “Brit. (orig. Military”), and cross-refers to “muck in”: “Originally: to share rations. Later: to share food, facilities, etc. (with); to tuck in to food; to participate or cooperate on equal terms with others in a task, hardship, etc.”.

    Doesn’t seem to be a borrowing, just another one of the senses glossed “To deal with or give rise to muck, mess, confusion, etc.”

  8. Trond Engen says

    Could It be a nativized borrowing of Dutch makker “mate, companion”, also borrowed into Scandinavian in the sense “(equal) partner, (other) member of a pair”?

  9. Interesting and plausible – though there are not many other Dutch or Scandinavian borrowings in military BrE. “Bergen”, a rucksack, though that seems to be just a genericised brand name like “sellotape” or “hoover”. The British army hasn’t really operated in the Netherlands or Scandinavia long enough to loot the language properly.
    I’ve never heard “muck in” meaning “to share rations”.

  10. Trond Engen says

    I think the route would be through nautical terminology — supposing a word could cross from navy to army slang.

  11. I thought an opposite number was a counterpart on an opposing side?

  12. @Marja Erwin: Yeah, that’s the meaning of opposite number familiar to me.

    My wife, although she’s American, uses a lot of British slang, including numpty. Since she is a Python programmer, her work notes often have “numpy” (the name of a numerical library) written on them, which I find hilarious.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Dutch makker “mate, companion”

    Also Low/northern German, apparently with a broader meaning “dude, guy”. Actual dialectal example.

  14. Moin moin!

  15. Isn’t “rucksack” also a Germanic borrowing?

  16. Yes – literally “backpack”.

    “I thought an opposite number was a counterpart on an opposing side?”

    Yes, and in this case the “opposing side” is the other half of the section (or whatever) who are doing the opposite of what you’re doing. So you don’t all clean your rifles at once, for example, because then if there’s an attack everyone has their rifles in bits. You clean yours while your oppo does something else; when you’re finished, you put yours back together, and then he strips his down and cleans it while you do something else.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Rucksack is German, but a bit odd, because it’s the only Standard member of the word family of Rücken “back; ridge” without umlaut. But then there aren’t any other compounds with Rücken as their first member that I can think of…

    And of course a Sack isn’t a pack but a sack.

  18. Atop your back
    you’re lacking a pack
    but you’re packing a sack.

  19. “Rucksack is German, but a bit odd, because it’s the only Standard member of the word family of Rücken “back; ridge” without umlaut. But then there aren’t any other compounds with Rücken as their first member that I can think of…”


  20. Trond Engen says

    I’ve thought of No. ryggsekk and its Scandinavian brethren as calques from German, but they make somewhat more sense internally in Scandinavian. Rygg is straightforward “back (body-part)” (and a cognate of ridge), but sekk is “sack, bag”. Maybe the 19th century British mountain tourist pioneers coined the word in one language and brought it with them to the other.

  21. Trond: the early mountaineers were doing their climbing in the Alps, I believe, so they would have had to pick up the word in German and take it with them to Scandinavia.

    The first recorded use of the word is apparently 1866, which would fit with the birth of mountaineering. Before then there were other words; soldiers, for example, carried “knapsacks” in the Civil and Napoleonic Wars.

  22. The OED says that rucksack came from a umlaut-less regional variant ruck or rucken in German.

    Rucksack also made me think of haversack, which has a very similar modern meaning. However, haversack (with the older meaning of a nose bag for a horse) came through French, not directly from German.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Hafer means “oats” and is a loan from MLG into MHG before the latter acquired [v].


    That’s related to rücken “move something in jerking motions” and Ruck “one such motion”, not to Rücken “back”.

  24. The earlier German meaning of “oat sack” probably influenced the English haversack after it had been adopted from French with the “nose bag” meaning. English haversack reverted to the “sack of oats” sense, and from there developed the current meaning of “sack worn over the shoulder” (which is almost the same as rucksack, but not quite).

  25. Is skreppe still used? Reppu most certainly is.

  26. “Haversack” = a sack for oats, and “knapsack” = a sack for food (“snap”, literal meaning of “knap”, is still used for food in the English Midlands.)

    Incidentally, how do people pronounce “rucksack”? Ruck as in rook, or as in ruckus?

  27. Usually the latter, but apparently “rook” is also used.

  28. January First-of-May says

    I wonder whether the Russian form рюкзак implies a borrowing from a dialect of German that still had *Rücksack. I mean, wouldn’t it be **рукзак or something similar otherwise?

    (Apparently Wiktionary says the spelling рукзак is attested.)

  29. Lars (the original one) says

    FWIW the ODS takes rygsæk for a translation loan from (Standard) German, attested from 1915; for Swedish ryggsäck SAOB has an attestation from a 1749 German-Swedish dictionary but only from 1897 in tourist litterature.

  30. Kate Bunting says

    When I first learned the word ‘rucksack’ I heard it pronounced ‘rook’; it was only later that I understood why.

    I believe soldiers’ knapsacks were actually called ‘snapsacks’ at the time of the ‘English’ Civil Wars.

  31. Maybe “snapsacks” was a soldiers’ mishearing of “knapsacks” at a time when /kn/ was still pronounced. I have the impression that this didn’t change till ca. 1700, but I could well be wrong.

  32. David Marjanović says

    There was once a word Schnappsack, but I don’t know what exactly it means, and it’s not in Wiktionary; schnappen means “to snatch”, which doesn’t make a lot of sense here unless the whole thing is etymologically nativized from English (which might happen if seafaring was involved).

    I wonder whether the Russian form рюкзак implies a borrowing from a dialect of German that still had *Rücksack.

    Either that, or the рь approximates an apical as opposed to laminal [r]; outside of Switzerland and surroundings, the pre-[ʀ] rhotic of German and Germanic in general is apical like in Italian or Finnish, while Slavic, pre-[ʀ] French and Swiss German have a laminal one. In Spanish, r is short and apical, while rr is long and laminal.

    This seems to explain such things as what the /i/ is doing in the Slavic names of Rome.

  33. Kn– and gn-reduction happened gradually from the 15C to the 17C, it seems, probably word by word. A few late loanwords like gnu were never pronounced as a cluster.

  34. “Schnappsack” or is it “Schnappssack”?

  35. I have long wondered where we get the name of schnapps, the infused alcoholic drink.

  36. Lars (the original one) says

    Etymonline has it: derived from the same verb as E snap, for a small glass emptied (“snapped”) in one mouthful, and by extension the drink traditionally drunk that way.

  37. Stu Clayton says

    Looks like the schnapp in Schnappsack means Bissen, what you get when you snap a bite. From Grimm:

    # SCHNAPPSACK [Lfg. 15,7], m. wie knappsack theil 5, 1350 fg., sack eigentlich zum mitführen von mundbissen auf der wanderung (vgl. schnappen 5, d), dann überhaupt tragsack, ranzen; vom niederdeutschen snapp-sakk, ranze, renzel, reisesack, worin die fuszgänger ihr essen haben (brem. wb. 4, 881), in die schriftsprache gekommen: schnappsack, ein sack oder beutel, trockne speisen darinn auf reisen aufzuheben und mitzuführen. JACOBSSON 4, 15a; schnapsack auf dem rücken. Pierot 2 (1743), 208; dasz Diogenes zum ersten grundsatz seiner filosofie gemacht hat, alle seine bedürfnisse, oder alles was er, auszer einem ziemlich kurzen und abgetragenen mantel, auf der ganzen welt besitzt, in einem mäszigen schnappsack auf der schulter mit sich herum zu tragen. WIELAND 35, 66; da er sein brod aus seinem schnapsack herausnahm. PESTALOZZI Lienh. u. Gertr. (1831) 3, 30; zerlumpte bettler mit dem schnappsack. G. KELLER werke 2, 187;

    reget sich was, gleich schieszt der jäger, ihm scheinet die schöpfung,
    wie lebendig sie ist, nur für den schnappsack gemacht. SCHILLER 11, 124;

    nur herunter mit dem schnappsack! PLATEN 250. #

  38. Stu Clayton says

    And schnapps (German Schnaps) does derive from schnappen !

    # SCHNAPPS [Lfg. 15,7], SCHNAPS, m. handlung des schnappens und geschnapptes, weiterbildung zu dem masc. schnapp (s. d.), wie klapps (theil 5, 980) zu klapp; gleichförmig ober- wie mittel- und niederd. wort.

    3) besonders bezeichnung einer gewissen menge brantwein, so viel man auf éin mal schnappen kann (landschaftlich auch wurf genannt); zufrühest niederd.: snapps und snipps, ein schluck branntwein, enen snapps nemen, ein gläschen gebranntes trinken. brem. wb. 4, 880; snapps, schluck, glas branntwein SCHÜTZE 4, 880; dann auch in mittel- und oberdeutschen mundarten: schnapps, schluck branntwein KEHREIN 359; #

  39. David Marjanović says

    Thank you!

  40. Or as the sign in the machine room used to say: “Das Komputermaschine ist nicht für der gefingerpoken und mittengraben. Oderwise ist easy schnappen der Springerwerken, blowenfusen und poppenkorken mit Spitzensparksen.” The traditional German equivalent is, of course, “Fingergrabbing and pressing the cnoeppkes from the computers is allowed for die experts only!”

  41. “…Relax, and enjoy the Blinkenlichts”, if memory serves.

  42. Trond Engen says

    Juha: Is skreppe still used? Reppu most certainly is.

    Not so much, and mostly in a historizing context. And less likely for a back-pack type bag than for a shoulder-bag similar to a mailman’s purse. I even see it used for a hobo’s bindle, but I think that must be a modern confusion.

    It’s probably better known as a slang term for “attractive woman”, but that too is somewhat antiquated now.

  43. I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered bindle in normal usage. Bindlestiff is a little more familiar, thanks to its association with booklegging.

  44. I’ve heard bindle used for a folded piece of paper used for powdered illegal drugs.

  45. Trond Engen says

    There you go. I was going to say “a hobo’s archetypical bag on a stick” but decided to google for something better and found ‘bindle’. I liked it because it reminded me of knytte, which is what I’d call it in Norwegian. What is it called in English then?

  46. It’s called a bindle as far as I know — it’s just that there’s little occasion to talk about hobos’ bags these days, and people would probably say “bag on a stick” if they had to talk about it for some reason.

  47. The classic computer-room sign has appeared on many walls in many forms since its origin at IBM in 1955.

  48. David Marjanović says

    “a hobo’s archetypical bag on a stick”

    Bündel, then, the cognate of bundle. Umlaut ruins ablaut, episode 243.

  49. Jonathon Green derives it from Büntel. Where does the discrepancy come from?

  50. The two are synonyms. I assume that one reflects what David calls Inderior German Gonsonant Weagening.

  51. I had always thought that bindlestiff was a doublet with bundle staff, with the two parts referring to the cloth wrapping and the stick to which it was tied, respectively. However, that is apparently not the case. The stiff in this case is from the meaning “a penniless man; a wastrel; a tramp; a migratory or unskilled worker” (per the OED). Thus, a bindlestiff was originally a tramp or hobo who carried his belongings in a bindle. However, the word eventually developed another sense, in which the stiff morpheme was completely assimilated, and this meaning of bindlestiff reverted to being synonymous with the original bindle. I wonder if this was, in part, caused by the same misunderstanding that I had about the meaning of the stiff.

  52. There’s a story of two convicts who come back to prison after a long day on the roads, one holding up the other.

    “What’s the matter with him?” said a guard.

    “He’s a little stiff from wheeling,” said the first convict.

    “And I’m a big stiff from Chicago. So what?”

    (I will explain this joke with another joke: “What’s harder than Wheeling, West Virginia? Flushing, New York.”)


    As the Hat may recall, James Blish used bindlestiff in the sense ‘tramp who robs other tramps’.

    Remember Thor V!

  53. David Marjanović says

    Never encountered Büntel, and there’s no reason why a t would show up anywhere in a derivative of binden – however, the merged /d/ becomes [t] in Saxony before /r l n/, so probably John Cowan guessed right.

  54. Büntel is attested, as is püntel; they probably represent dialects without a phonemic voiced / voiceless distinction, or where it works differently from Standard German. Unfortunately, the online Deutsches Wörterbuch doesn’t have an appendix where the abbreviations for the quoted sources are explained, so one cannot tell from what period or region the works originate.
    But I also don’t see any cogent reason to derive English bindle(stick) from a German dialect with [t] or devoiced [d].

  55. David Marjanović says

    Ah, but the attestations with t are so old that we have to expect chaos! Upper German in general doesn’t have phonemic voice, and much of northern Upper and southern/eastern Central German has a complete collapse of the distinction, and in some cases Verner variants may have been sorted out differently, so, as long as a robust spelling tradition didn’t exist and Standard German didn’t exist either, there was widespread chaos for hundreds of years.

    Less expectedly, the chaos goes back all the way to OHG one click away; that’s where we might be looking at straightforward dialect differences… or not.

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