An interesting Martin Wainwright story in the Grauniad:

A dialect so dense that it held up social reforms has been rescued from obscurity by the publication of its first dictionary [dead link as of 2017].

Thousands of terms used in Pitmatic, the oddly-named argot of north-east miners for more than 150 years, have been compiled through detailed research in archives and interviews with the last generation to talk of kips, corf-batters and arse-loops.

First recorded in Victorian newspapers, the language was part of the intense camaraderie of underground working which excluded even friendly outsiders such as the parliamentary commissioners pressing for better conditions in the pits in 1842…

The first Pitmatic dictionary, including pit recollections and analysis of the origins of the dialect’s words, has been compiled by Bill Griffiths, the country’s foremost Geordie scholar, whose previous work includes the standard Dictionary of North East Dialect. His new book reveals an exceptionally rich combination of borrowings from Old Norse, Dutch and a score of other languages, with inventive usages dreamed up by the miners themselves. “There’s been an urgency to the project, copying the handwritten diaries and songs stored away in family homes,” said Mr Griffiths, who also collected booklets, pit newspapers and magazines and spent hours interviewing ex-miners…

Part-financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, in a three-stage dialect study of the north-east called Wor Language, the dictionary reveals the deeply practical nature of Pitmatic. The dialect was originally called Pitmatical, and its curious name was a parallel to mathematics, intended to stress the skill, precision and craft of the colliers’ work.

Term after term is related to mining practices, such as stappil, a shaft with steps beside the coal seam, or corf-batters, boys who scraped out filthy baskets used for hauling coal to the pithead.

Other words are more earthy: arse-loop is a rope chair used when repairing shafts and a candyman or bum-bailiff is a despised official who evicts strikers from company-owned homes.

Many thanks to Kattullus and Maureen, who sent me the story simultaneously.


  1. I’ll be ordering my copy soon!
    BTW, not sure if this article is indicating that ‘bum-bailiff’ is Pitmatic, or merely glossing ‘candyman’… I’d thought it was Urquhart’s word, glossing Rabelais’s Chiquanou, but then I remembered that U’s word is catchpole; I think modern translators have used ‘bum-bailiff’, though.

  2. Huh. My mother’s mother’s father was a coal miner in Britain; I wonder if he had exposure to this dialect. (I do believe he was a southerner, so wouldn’t have spoken it.)

  3. Bum-bailiff goes back at least to the late 18th Century, when it was recorded by Blackstone – so I don’t think it’s Pitmatic in origin.
    Apparently, Bum-Bailiff is a corruption of the term “Bound Bailiff.” A bailiff is an officer of the sheriff and the sheriff is liable for any mistakes made by the bailiff. Therefore, it was common at one point for inexperienced bailiffs to be “bound” to their sheriffs by sureties (a kind of guarantee). Some writers say that “bum” comes from the sense of “buttocks” (because the bum bailiff attacks from the rear), but Blackstone’s explanation is more plausible and has the support of retired judge Sir Robert Megarry (a noted legal historian).

  4. You can hear a recording of Pitmatic here , along with hundreds of other dialect recordings on the Collect Britain website. Listen carefully and you can hear the “Northumbrian burr” – the guttural /r/ that used to be found in some Northeastern dialects, including Pitmatic.

  5. michael farris says

    Okay, am I the only one who’s shallow enough to think that Pitmatic sounds like the name of a hypothetical canonical new wave group and their only album circa 1981?
    AM I? (crickets chirp, a lonely tumbleweed passes through)
    Okay, I guess I am.

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