The Telegraph obit leads off with the basic story: “Stanley Ellis, who has died aged 83, was Britain’s best-known dialectologist and phonetician, and pioneered the forensic analysis of voice recordings, among them the hoax tape that derailed the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry.” If you’re interested in the forensic stuff, there’s lots of it there; me, I liked the dialect bits:

In his series Talk of the Town, Talk of the Country, Ellis illustrated his theme with examples, explaining the derivation of Yorkshire dialect words such as “fraunge” (to stroll about); “femmer” (young or tender); and “fettle” (the old word for a strap, which came to mean “get, make, prepare, put right”).
He discovered that a runt – the weakest in a litter of piglets – was a “crit” in Northumberland, a “wreckling” in Lincolnshire, a “nizgul” in Herefordshire and a “nestle-tripe” in Dorset.
He also found that north country people were more inclined to cling to dialect than those in the south, who regarded such speech as “non-U”; men, he found, were more likely to stick to the old words than their womenfolk.
Among thousands of regional variations, Ellis noted 88 different words for left-handed, ranging from “gibble-fisted” to “squivver-handed”; while someone silly might be “hatchy”, “dibby”, “dummy”, “half-sharp” or “daft as a dicky-docket”.

Once again, I deplore the all too widespread idea that language should be made uniform; how can anyone resist terms like “gibble-fisted” and “daft as a dicky-docket”? (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. This pretty much puts the Herefordshire dialect at the top of my list, as I am now convinced that it is one of the old tongues of Middle Earth.

  2. and “fettle” (the old word for a strap, which came to mean “get, make, prepare, put right”).
    Is this the source of the name of the fettling knife used by potters? I always wondered about that one.

  3. There’s another, quite odd, Telegraph story next to this obituary.

  4. a “nizgul” in Herefordshire
    Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
    ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul!

  5. Caganers are not sold on Amazon.

  6. @Anal: I recently saw an American joke about Luther nailing his feces to the church door.
    In the Formerly Civilised Isles, it would be faeces.

  7. Trond Engen says

    That is bullshit, or at least faecetious, based on nothing but a small problem with Worms.

  8. Picturesque similes are a feature of quaint dialect that inspires a lot of affection. I wonder how live they are for the speakers concerned. Does each peasant have a rich stock –or even invent new ones– or is it just that each parish has its own small set of clichés that impress furriners but leave the natives unmoved?

  9. Nestle-tripe was one of those 1980s instant dishes with chocolate mole sauce. That was as daft as a dicky-docket.

  10. Did ANYONE who read your post NOT think of the Ringwraiths? Also, to answer your question, I find it quite easy to resist terms like ‘gibble-fisted’. Unless, of course, ‘gibble’ means ‘naturally superior in every way although victimised by millennia of social and linguistic discrimination and denigration’. That does not seem very likely.

  11. I think it stands to reason that if one consists mainly on a diet of worms, one might end up with faeces that are a bit, uh… Ridley.

  12. Subsists, of course. If one consisted of Worms one would be throughly Ridley before they were anybody’s faces at all.

  13. John Wells had a few reminiscences too.

  14. And a bit more here – be sure to check the links.

  15. When I be a lad, one could not travel 5 miles before ‘realising’ that one be in foreign lingo land [turf], then the Yanks came with airplanes [aeroplanes], gum chum ,silk ‘stawkings’ and ‘spoilt’ the fun with flickers, with strange cowboys then came the goggle box and then nowt be the same.
    One size does NOT fit all, like what spuds did to the Ireland [one staple], one language can do us in, then back to the tower of babel.
    Too big too fail….

  16. Yes, terms for lefthandedness sound quaint and exotic, but in their social context they are often putdowns that gibble-fisted people could very much live without.

  17. And if I was told I was a snivelling nestle-tripe, I don’t think that the colourfulness of the dialect would make me feel any more affection for the person who called me that.

  18. I’m certainly in agreement with the assembled that language doesn’t need any more uniformity than it’s already got, and that dialects and minority languages are as much a cultural treasure as any other folk art. But I think it’s just as needless to move in the other direction and blame the Yanks (or anyone else) for coming in and spoiling your dialect. The only sane corollary to the assertion that every dialect deserves cherishing and love is the assertion that all dialects will change and shift; any language for whom some proportion of speakers spend overmuch time fighting back and decrying new words looks just as lopsided to me as any uniform monocultural dialect you can think of.
    I believe it’s already been established that mass communication is NOT making everyone on the planet speak the same grey tongue. Indeed, many of the new forms of speech that are popping up could only have been created out of the new possibilities of mass communication and cheap global transportation.
    Sadly I reckon it might be fairly common that many members of your local dialect society might look on the recently arrived youth and immigrant dialects in their area with much the same scorn as their own language was seen by the Standard Class.

  19. > And if I was told I was a snivelling nestle-tripe, I don’t think that the colourfulness of the dialect would make me feel any more affection for the person who called me that.
    Though the more dialectical variation we have, the more likely that the blow of abuse would be softened by the recipient’s incomprehension.

  20. more likely that the blow of abuse would be softened by the recipient’s incomprehension
    You can’t always count on that though. One day I was walking though the streets of Addis Ababa and, becoming suddenly fed up with the steady stream of attention that is the lot of every westerner in the third world (they always think they are the only one and not just the only one in the last ten seconds), uttered the word كلب at my latest unsuspecting tormentor. Unfortunately I had picked possibly the only person in Addis who understood the word, although I had acquired it in Jordan and he had acquired it in Morocco, from flavors of Arabic that are mutually incomprehensible.
    Ironically, I really like dogs.

  21. Dearieme: Are you sure about the provenance of that anecdote? [θ] is firmly in control here in the Western Hemisphere; the joke would make much more sense if it were of English origin.
    (Or is that the joke?)

  22. “Theses” and “feces” sound distinct to American ears, but similar enough that it’s natural to think of punning on “feces” when you hear the word “theses”. I have the impression that in my long life I have witnessed the spontaneous generation of this joke more than once.

  23. Standards are lower for toilet jokes than they are for almost any other kind of joke. Toilet jokes are the very epitome of low standards.

  24. It’s so unfair to make jokes about toilets, they’re doing their best in really shitty conditions.

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