Slightly Less Maroon.

My brother gave me Belinda Bauer’s new crime novel Snap, set in the southwest of England (Tiverton and nearby parts of Devon, to be precise), and at one point a policeman is investigating a burglary — a family has come back from vacation to find their house not only burgled but despoiled — and the irate paterfamilias is complaining about insurance companies: “Always looking for ways not to pay you.” The scene continues:

‘Well, you’ve done the right thing leaving everything as it was for us to see, Mr Passmore. I’ll be giving you a crime reference number for the insurance claim.’

‘Thanks.’ Passmore nodded, slightly less maroon.

I was taken aback by this unexpected use of maroon, which means a number of things but not, as far as I can tell, anything like ‘upset.’ Is this a slang/dialect UK thing?

Also, the Wikipedia article on Tiverton (linked above) refers to its “medieval town leat“; this dialect word for an artificial watercourse or aqueduct was new to me, and I find it pleasing; Wikipedia sez:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, leat is cognate with let in the sense of “allow to pass through”. Other names for the same thing include fleam (probably a leat supplying water to a mill that did not have a millpool). In parts of northern England, for example around Sheffield, the equivalent word is goit. In southern England, a leat used to supply water for water-meadow irrigation is often called a carrier, top carrier, or main.

I’m not sure which I like better, fleam, goit, or leat.


  1. I don’t remember having seen maroon used like that, but immediately understood it to mean puce so it didn’t strike me as odd (cf “his face was puce with rage and frustration”).

    Interesting that Wiktionary says maroon is reddish-brown. I would have assumed reddish-purple. Perhaps the author shares my colour-naming instincts.

  2. Presumably it’s referring to the colour maroon — slightly less maroon = slightly less red in the face?

  3. Ah, you must both be right, of course — I just wouldn’t think of describing an angry face as “maroon,” so it didn’t occur to me.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Slightly less red in the face, is how I would understand it – with anger rather than embarrassment, the traditional colour schemes being slightly different!

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I am however mildly baffled by ‘leat’ being described as a dialect word – I understood it to be the standard form of what I would call a lade!

  6. Well, Wikipedia says the word is “common in the south and west of England and in Wales,” so I took that to imply dialect status. I am probably wrong.

  7. A leat in German is a Kunstgraben.

    I’ve never understood why the Maroons of Jamaica – the still independent community of escaped slaves and their descendants – use that name. Can it be because they have or had chestnut-coloured skin? No more so than other African slaves, surely.

    Angry white middle-aged men traditionally turn purple or lobster-coloured. A lobster (red) and a chestnut (brown & cream) are miles apart in every way, including colour. QED pale-skinned folk from Devon cannot turn maroon, which is incidentally the State Colour of Queensland. Every state should have a colour.

  8. I am however mildly baffled by ‘leat’ being described as a dialect word

    I grew up in Oxfordshire (in a town of medieval vintage) and I’ve never heard of ‘leat’ or any of the other dialect versions of it. I don’t know that I have any word at all for the thing described. I guess I’d call it a drainage channel if I was forced to come up with something.

  9. I am however mildly baffled by ‘leat’ being described as a dialect word

    Yes, it’s the standard term in watermill technology: the leat is a broad channel approaching the mill so that the water slows and any grit settles out, then won’t damage the wheel or turbine; the (tail-)race aka flume ensures the water flows quickly away after going through the wheel/turbine, then won’t back-up incoming flow. reference

    ‘Race’ seems to be far better known than ‘leat’ (and other things for waterflow management get called ‘race’); and yes there are other regional words for either. But that doesn’t make ‘leat’ a dialect word.

  10. Trond Engen says

    ‘Leat’ may be a specialized word now, but it seems to be of old Germanic pedigree. There’s an archaic Norw. laut f. “small valley, depression; field esp. for grazing”, known from toponyms as e.g. Løten < lautvin. Hellquist knows the word as Sw. löt in more or less the same meaning but also “grassy lower stripe of land between hillocks or raised fields”, the derivation from the verb luta “lean, decline” explained by how ancient settlements were situated on hills and ridges, with the less arable lower parts being used for grazing. The word and its meanings are old enough to have been borrowed as Finnish lautta “area for animals on a farm”. Bjorvand & Lindeman discuss laut under the verb lute, mentioning but dismissing a further connection to Celtic forms and a ultimately an extended IE root *lew-d-.

    Neither Hellquist nor B&L list Eng- leat among the Germanic cognates, but it looks to me like an independent development from “lower stripe of land between hillocks or fields”.

  11. OK, I’m ignorant of the most basic things, but what does a millpool do? Is it the same as a millpond?

    The first time I get to play fleam in Scrabble, I will ascend to Heaven on a fiery chariot.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    @AJP Crown:

    I don’t think “maroon” as the ethnic group has anything to do with the colour: it’s said to be from Spanish cimarrón (in which case, it’s a doublet of “Seminole” too.)

  13. Without looking it up I would have said that a fleam is a surgical instrument, a kind of knife or bladed instrument.
    “a sharp lancet formerly used for bloodletting”

  14. A doublet of phlebotomy. One dictionary defines it as ‘a gum-lancet’. Ew.

    Of the other one OED says, “Apparently a variant of flume n. (Middle English flum), which has both senses; but the phonology is obscure; there may be some confusion with a Germanic word, Old English *fléam < *flaumo- < root of Old High German flawen to wash.”

  15. January First-of-May says

    I don’t remember having seen maroon used like that, but immediately understood it to mean puce so it didn’t strike me as odd

    Pretty much, except that I’m assuming that both “maroon” and “puce” are colors similar to purple (and I think I’ve seen “purple” used in that sense too).

    The first few times I saw “puce” used that way I was somewhat confused, though, because for some reason I thought that puce was a shade of green.
    (I did know that maroon was a shade of red – though I wasn’t quite sure which particular shade – so I had less confusion this time.)

    As for “maroon” meaning “escaped slave”, I would probably have associated it with the verb maroon “to abandon in a remote location”; but apparently the association actually went the other way. It does indeed have nothing to do with the color.

  16. John Cowan says

    The OED says about leat:

    Perhaps compare early modern German las, lässe, in sense ‘stretch of water of a specified length (between fish traps)’ (1530), German regional (Switzerland) lass ‘small water channel’.

  17. what does a millpool do? Is it the same as a millpond?

    I’ve not heard ‘millpool’ before. A millpond (apart from being a place to keep domestic waterfowl/surround by herbaceous plants/remind of Olde England on calendars) serves the same purpose as a ‘leat’ — i.e. let gravel settle out of the water so it doesn’t damage the watermill machinery. And ‘leat’ is the standard term/not dialectical.

    All of which was explained on an earlier post that seems to have disappeared. In which I also explained the purpose of a (tail)-race aka flume — which would connect up to other etymological notes here.

    WordPress must have decided my reference: Rez Wailes’ Resource book of Windmills and Watermills was too racey (geddit?) for the gentle readers here.

  18. I would have thought that the standard term was fleam, which I also know in the medical sense. I had never known though that the connection between the two meanings was through bloodletting.

    @January First-of-May: My gut feeling is always that puce should be an shade of ugly shade of green as well. I think it is just the pull of the word puke that makes me want to think that.

  19. I haven’t heard millpool, but I suppose it is the same as a millpond. Although the millpond may help in removing gravel, its main purpose is to store water at a higher elevation so that it can be used, when required, to drive a mill-wheel by the flow of the water. Generally a millpond is created by damming a watercourse at a point where there is a drop in elevation.

    In our local history around here, around 100 years ago or more, the town of Los Gatos dammed Los Gatos Creek and ran a flume down to drive a hydroelectric generator to provide electricity for the town. Quite a long flume, perhaps half a mile. Parts of it are still there. This would have put Forbes Mill, a flour mill that used the same drop in elevation to operate a flour mill, out of business. (They probably were already out of business as the wheat industry went into decline here.)

    Southern Pacific Railroad, while changing their track from narrow-gauge to standard-gauge, damaged the adjacent flume, and the town had to switch to a coal-fired generator. The town then sued the railroad for the cost of the coal. It was a celebrated legal case around here.

    There is not a lot of water in Los Gatos Creek and the drop is rather mild, so the electricity requirements of the town of Los Gatos back a century ago must have been fairly modest.

  20. Thank you, David Eddyshaw, for cimarrón. I ought to have seen that myself.

    Lagg is a perfectly useful word in the same context as leat etc. A bog lagg is the moat of water that forms around a naturally draining gentle dome of peat in a water meadow. With a bit of luck we’ll read more old words like this as rewilding takes off.

  21. Oddly enough, I knew somebody who had “milpool” as a tattoo. It was a somewhat obscure Simpsons joke, nothing to do with mills.

  22. David Marjanović says

    I’d always interpreted maroon as brown, probably because I encountered French marron first. The state colour of Queensland isn’t brown at all, it’s a seriously ugly shade of reddish purple!

    Maybe this goes to show just how young the concept of “brown” is.

  23. just how young the concept of “brown” is.

    Nah. The Neanderthals had 87 words for “brown”. There was a lot of brown in their environment.

  24. I don’t think the purpose of a leat is to let gravel settle. The leat takes water from a stream upstream of the mill, and while the stream descends its valley the leat maintains a comparatively level course, so that when it reaches the mill it is higher than the stream and can drop in height through the mill wheel.

    I’m from Southern England and it’s a standard term for me.

  25. I don’t think the purpose of a leat is to let gravel settle.

    Ahem. I reference Rex Wailes for the third time. He is the absolute authority (in Britain). OBE for his services recording and preserving mills/ molinology — there’s another fine word.

    the leat maintains a comparatively level course Quite. Also a smooth course with no sharp bends. So the water flows more slowly. So the gravel settles out. (Go and look at the bed of the leat. If you can find a well-maintained one, also observe the sluices and spillways used to block the flow going to the mill for when the leat’s being cleaned out, to avoid the disturbed gravel getting into the works.)

    Contrast that in NZ, with much steeper terrain, and C19th cast-iron technology (Pelton Wheels/turbines which are very susceptible to gravel damage, more so than British paddle wheels): the leat hugs the contours some hundreds of feet above the mill; the water goes through a series of meshes along the leat (which need frequent cleaning out); then the water enters a pipe so that it drops near-vertically and passes at high pressure through the turbine.

  26. Indeed I regularly look at a leat, since there is one not 200 yards from my home. And you are quite right that the leat and associated gear are designed in such a way that the supply can be kept clean. But, I’m sorry, the purpose of the leat, I maintain, is supply.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    Compromise: the purpose of a leat is to supply water out of which the gravel has been allowed to settle, so as not to block up the leat at the delivery point.

  28. Look, that’s ridiculously reasonable. Can’t I fight to the death over this?

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    It appears that “leat” is a slightly more precise subset of the sort of thing known in my ideolect (which I’m gonna guess tracks standard AmEng pretty well, at least for the subset of speakers who even have lexemes to describe the largely obsolete referent) as a “millrace.” Whether earlier forms of AmEng (back when water wheels were the state of the art source of industrial power) included the full range of more precise words for various kinds of millrace found in various regional dialects back in Mother England or if the vocabulary had already been streamlined/impoverished after the Atlantic crossing even back when the referents were highly salient in everyday discourse might be an interesting question.

  30. Hmm, I know the word ‘millrace’ but the wikipedia page on ‘leat’ doesn’t appear to describe the same thing. I think of the millrace as being the stretch of water in the immediate vicinity of the millwheel, whereas a leat seems to be a much longer channel that runs to the mill from some distance away.

  31. Trond Engen says

    OED by way of JC: Perhaps compare early modern German las, lässe, in sense ‘stretch of water of a specified length (between fish traps)’ (1530), German regional (Switzerland) lass ‘small water channel’.

    This must be the “let” word. I can see how water channels can be divided into “holds” and “lets”, or schlüsse and lässe. But how is that supposed to be related to English leat?

  32. “Every state should have a colour.” Queensland’s state colour, like Irish county colours, comes from its sports team. Some US States have colours. Are there any sports where US states have representative teams? Probably only ones too obscure to cross over.

  33. January First-of-May says

    Are there any sports where US states have representative teams? Probably only ones too obscure to cross over.

    Apparently some Major League Baseball teams are named for their states (rather than cities) – Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Minnesota Twins, and Colorado Rockies (and the New York Yankees and New York Mets are ambiguous, though I suspect that both probably refer to the city).

    I have no idea to what extent they can be said to represent those states, however (and of course most of the MLB teams aren’t named for states at all).

  34. Trond Engen says

    Where do European national sports colours different from the flag colours come from? Orange for the Netherlands is the colour of the House of Orange, but what about the traditional green for Germany and the still very current blue for Italy?

  35. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Trond, in the Italian case the most likely explanation is the same as for the Netherlands. Blue (“Savoy blue” in particular) used to be the dynastic color of the House of Savoy and as a result a national color of the Duchy of Savoy, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and finally the Kingdom of Italy. Italy got rid of the monarchs but kept the color, on military sashes as well as sports uniforms.

  36. @January First-of-May: There are even a couple teams named after regions – the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Green for Germany? The national soccer team is dressed in white, with the flag on the margins…?

  38. Trond Engen says

    Giacomo P.: Blue (“Savoy blue” in particular) used to be the dynastic color of the House of Savoy

    Yes, I remember that now. Also, I recall reading something about Germany’s colour, but a little research reveals that that’s actually black-and-white being the colours of the House of Hohenzollern (and hence the Kingdom of Prussia). The green away jerseys are apparently from the colour of the coat of arms of the German Football Association, but this doesn’t explain why German nordic skiers used to wear green. I can’t find any explanation for Austria’s black and white, other than that the use of the black and yellow of the House of Habsburg was not continued by the Austrian Republic.

  39. Trond Engen says

    David M.: Green for Germany?

    Well. The German football team has (or used to have) green away kits, and I distinctly remember German nordic skiers wearing green. But Google won’t help me with images, so that may well have been for a very short time in the late seventies.

  40. J.W. Brewer says

    Re “state teams” in the U.S., you might more profitably look at the college level, where e.g. it was announced today that one of the two semi-finals for the national football championship (in the highest competition level) will be between Alabama and Oklahoma, both of which teams are seen, as I understand it, as representing the state-at-large by many residents who are not personally connected (as graduates or parents of students or what have you) of the specific “University of STATENAME” that the teams are affiliated with. And at the next level of competition down, I feel a continuing sense of emotional connection to my childhood “home team” the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens, even though neither I nor any of my family ever attended the namesake university.

  41. Fightin’ Blue Hens U.?

    The first subway series was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the NY Giants in Manhattan, so my guess is that New York means the city not the state. Besides upstate they all root for Boston.

  42. Yes, definitely the city.

  43. “leat” … sort of thing known … as a “millrace.”

    (tail-)race or flume was also mentioned in my post that has now appeared from durance vile (thank you).

    David L is right that the race is “in the vicinity” of the wheel. Strictly, it is to ensure water flows/’races’ away quickly/doesn’t back up and slow the wheel. It is shaped to widen and drop the channel before the flow rejoins the streambed.

    “millrace” is sometimes used less formally for the whole water flow leat to drop to flume.

    Like Picky, I would hate to be unreasonably reasonable about laxness of terminology.

    There have been water wheels in Britain since C12th, so it’s highly likely there’s specialised or regional terminology that didn’t get across the Atlantic.

  44. The only time I think I’ve ever heard “leat” in my life is as part of a place-name: Longleat.

  45. Kate Bunting says

    When I visited Dartmoor years ago I was shown the Devonport Leat, designed to carry drinking water to Plymouth.

  46. Besides upstate they all root for Boston.

    That might be a recent development based on the Red Sox’ recent run of success. When I was growing up even Western Massachusetts and parts of Vermont had heavy infestations of Yankees’ supporters, I find it hard to believe there are a lot of Sox fans in Albany or Ithaca.

  47. That might be a recent development based on the Red Sox’ recent run of success.

    I’d want to see some evidence for it.

    When I was growing up even Western Massachusetts and parts of Vermont had heavy infestations of Yankees’ supporters

    This is still true of Western Mass (where I live).

  48. heavy infestations of Yankees’ supporters

    People like the Yankees (also Chelsea & Man. Utd) for odd reasons, like their uniforms. More convincing evidence of blind NYC allegiance would be Mets supporters.

    I was probably thinking of Connecticut anyway. A house divided against itself: half Yank, half Sox.

  49. I can’t speak for Connecticut, but in Western Mass the operative factor is a hatred of Boston (which always ignores the problems of the western half of the state). Why the Yankees instead of the Mets? Because nobody in their right mind roots for the Mets (me, I’m crazy); there was a brief period in the mid-’80s when they were better than the Yanks, but then they beat the Sox in that unforgettable ’86 Series and everybody in Massachusetts hated them. (Game 6 comeback, the high point of my 23 years in the city — watching it still gives me goosebumps. Sorry, Sox fans!)

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    I can’t speak for how good the data underlying this map is, but the boundary it shows between Yankees-dominant territory and Red-Sox-dominant territory is pretty boring. I assume this shows wins by plurality, so if e.g. anti-Boston sentiment led a county in Western Mass to be 55% anti-Sox but that anti-Sox sentiment was divided (let’s say 40% for Yankees and 15% for Mets), the 45% pro-Sox constituency would still be shown as dominating the county.

  51. Indeed, that’s just a map of cultural New England with a Québécois addendum. And the poor Mets get nothing!

  52. Here’s similar map that strikes me as a little more accurate, at least as far as upstate NY baseball opinions go:,43.844,-73.066

  53. David Marjanović says

    The first map is scary, the second only slightly less so.

  54. And the poor Mets get nothing!

    Story of my life. (Insert rant about ownership/management.)

  55. Getting back to maroon: I remember being puzzled by the same word in the same book and arriving at the same explanation (he’s previously described as “red-faced”). But I still found it awkward, since one of my school colors was maroon and it wasn’t just a deep red, the brown component was pretty marked. Another term that startled me – but which definitely seems to be a standard British usage – was “grizzle” to describe a baby doing what I would call fretting. It turns up a couple of times, and I’d never encountered it before.

  56. I wonder if “grizzle” in that sense is another example of the rare “-le” frequentative suffix in English? Also found in sparkle, nestle, grumble, wrestle etc.

  57. The maroon Mr Passmore had just arrived back from vacation. Perhaps he was suntanned, this lending the brownish shade to his red-faced indignation..

    as a grizzled old colonial, I also use ‘grizzling’ for those grey cold misty days where the weather can’t quite make up its mind to rain or clear up, but this seems to be idiosyncratic.

  58. From what I gather, it comes from West Country dialect (but has spread as far as Australia and NZ) and seems to have a different origin from the adjective used for old men and bears (which instead – unsurprisingly – comes from Old French grisel, gray). In the mid-1700s it meant “grin” or “bare one’s teeth” and by the mid-1800s had also come to mean “sulk, fuss, complain” (according to the OED, quoted in Alex Games’s Balderdash & Piffle).

    As for the frequentative suffix, who knows? Thanks for bringing it up, though, because otherwise I would never have learned that “fizzle” originally referred to silent farting. And now I should really get back to work.

  59. “grizzle” to describe a baby doing what I would call fretting.

    (Brit/NZer here.) Grizzle is a perfectly standard term for what a baby does. Fretting is what adults do: worrying unhelpfully. (The sense of a ‘sea fret’, brilliantly captured in Britten’s Peter Grimes seems not to have come to NZ. With us being in the middle of a large ocean, there’s seldom any still days like that.)

    Yes the ‘old men and bears’ sense of grizzle has come to NZ. There’s a local Rugby ex-player with nickname ‘Griz’ for his wild hair and fearsome reputation on the field.

  60. When I was growing up, I thought a grizzly bear was so named because it is a very cantankerous or bad-natured bear.

  61. David Marjanović says

    I used to think it was a grisly bear, because the /s/-/z/ distinction is so inconsistently indicated in English spelling…

  62. If you thought it was /s/ that would have been a gristly bear.

  63. January First-of-May says

    I think I just thought that grizzly (or something similar sounding) must have been what the local Native Americans called it – which was probably the logical guess for the name of a North American animal without a transparent European etymology.

    (Though that guess didn’t work for bison either, and, come to think of it, also failed for Russian енот “raccoon” – though raccoon itself is indeed of Native American origin.)

    …Come to think of it, it probably didn’t help that I was working from Russian гризли, which is a transliteration that doesn’t even sound much like English.

  64. I have seen, and by a learned author too, a female organ described as a grisly lump; I am reasonably sure he meant gristly.

  65. @John Cowan: Either that, or vagina dentata.

    Perhaps the most evocative thing I ever read by Jack Vance (and, despite not considering myself a fan of the author, I have read eighteen of his novels) was the description from The Dirdir of the primary human villain, Aila Woudiver, pursing his lips into “a fountain of grey-pink gristle.” For some reason, that impression really stuck with me, although it was probably aided by The Dirdir being my favorite one of all Vance’s books. In fact, all of the Planet of Adventure series are quite good, at least in part because the setting provides at least a partial justification for the profusion of bizarre human cultures.

    I also remember that, in sixth grade, our teacher was a really big fan of the Two Minute Mysteries by Donald J. Sobol; he would read them aloud in class and give extra credit to the first person to work out the answer to each one. Late in the year, we actually had a creative writing assignment to produce our own such story. Mine was about a case where a Yellowstone ranger who was shot by a colleague while trying to get away from a bear, and whether the shooting had been an accident. The title was “A Grizzly Murder.”

  66. John Cowan says

    Gammon, like spinach, is one of those words meaning ‘nonsense’. Their etymologies are usually uncontroversial; it’s how they get that meaning that is mysterious. The OED connects this gammon with backgammon.

    (Both go back to the early 19C, so long predating the famous spinach/broccoli cartoon.)

  67. My guess is that this was something of a malapropism where the author meant “morose”, possibly helped along by the connection to purple noted above.

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