Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Jiddlin with words until I am zam-zody in the head!

Oilseed rape in full bloom near Paulstown, Co Kilkenny last week. Photo: Roger Jones.
Oilseed rape in full bloom near Paulstown, Co Kilkenny last week. Photo: Roger Jones.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I have just finished reading a fantastic new book called Landmarks, by leading British nature and travel writer Robert MacFarlane. It is informative, entertaining and uplifting.

It is described on the cover as a field guide to the literature of nature, - it's also a vast glossary of thousands of remarkable and evocative terms from the languages and many dialects of Britain and Ireland.

It is all that, a celebration and defence of the language of the landscape, done in such a way that it makes me want to learn these words and mind these words, which are so evocative and powerful. Almost every page turned triggers a "I know exactly what that is" or a "there's a word for that?" moment.

For example, smeuse (pronounced smee-ooze) is a Sussex dialect noun for a hole in the base of a hedge made by the repeated passage of a small animal. In Northamptonshire, bull-pated applies to a tuft of grass driven by the wind into a quiff, i.e. standing up like the tuft on a bull's forehead.

Éit is the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn (Scots Gaelic, Isle of Lewis). In East Anglia, a whelm is half a hollow tree, placed with its hollow side downwards, to form a small watercourse.

Words are being lost because we spend more time indoors and at screens, particularly and ever-increasingly so in the case of children.

Macfarlane refers to the 2007 issue of the Oxford Junior dictionary in which almost 20 words relating to nature - including acorn, buttercup, conker and kingfisher - were removed to make room for the likes of attachment, blog and chatroom.

The publishers pointed out that the dictionary needs to reflect the lives of contemporary children and, despite an uproar from educators and naturalists, the words were not reinstated in the 2012 edition. But surely there should be room for both. And I expect I am being old-fangled here, but do the second set of words not sound very dull compared to the first?

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In each chapter, Macfarlane travels to meet farmers, sailors, walkers, glossarians, artists, poets and others who have developed intense relationships with their chosen places.

One such person is Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog. Their friendship was young when Deakin died but the connection was already robust and Macfarlane is Deakin's literary executor. He quotes from a letter he received in that role from a Dutchman living in Warwickshire for many years which included the following moving words:

"Many sentences in each of his (Roger's) books are as if engraved in me…they are a magnifying glass, lens and microscope to the natural world."

As for the glossaries, MacFarlane says they are not intended to be scholarly to the point of definitive, rather as "imaginative resources, as testimony to the vivid particularities of language and landscape, as adventures in the word-hoard - and as prompts to vision".

He admits, though, that there are times when the only thing he can say on the top of a mountain is "wow" - which is very refreshing and somewhat reassuring to hear from someone so articulate and knowledgeable.

"Placeless events are inconceivable. Words act as a compass; place speech serves literally to enchant the land - to sing it back into being and, to sing one's being back into it," he writes.

Because "once a landscape goes undescribed and therefore unregarded, it becomes more vulnerable to unwise use."

In these temperate lands there are lot of words related to precipitation, but I learnt some new terms for raining hard, including chucking, henting, honing, hoying, kelching, wazzing it down.

While brimming with information, there is an underlying sense of humour and adventure. The Galloway terms jabblin/jappin/jiddlin/jirblin and jirglin describe playing around with water as children do.

There are too few Irish words but that is a minor quibble. Those words that make it include doire (oak wood), tuaim (burial mound), ciseach (improvised bridge across a stream) and bruach (halo around the moon, presaging unsettled weather) and báini-báini (calling pigs to food).

The author has stuck mainly to aspects of the land, sea, and atmosphere but some animal terms have crept in, including several relating to dung.

Doofers is horse dung in Scots, belsh is to cut the dung away from around a sheep's tail (Exmoor) while ujller is the unctuous filth that runs from a dunghill (Shelandic Scots), which MacFarlane points out doubles nicely as an insult.

There are various calls to animals from Herefordshire, including dilly-dilly-dilly (to ducks) si-ew si-ew si-ew (to pigs) and koop-koop-koop (to horses). In the same part of England, the yellow gelatinous substance found on rotten wood, once reputed to have dropped from the sky, is called fairy butter, scoom, star jelly or witches' butter.

He intersperses geographical dialects with what could be called 'professional' dialects, used by specific groups of people in their area of interest.

The nautical term for a sudden violent squall is williwaw; endolphin is swimmer's slang for the natural opiates (endorphins) released on contact with cold water, while staghead is a term for the dead crown of a veteran tree.

Other personal favourites include zam-zody (soft, damp, wet) from Exmoor; watery-headed (anxious about rain) from Essex, and rionnach maoim (shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright, windy day) from Scots Gaelic.

A wonty-tump is a molehill in Herefordshire, weepy land is rife with springs, a long sharp ridge is a soo's back (literally sow's back) in Scots while, in Suffolk, footprints of creatures as they appear in the snow are known as feetings.

It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by this book but I was too busy enjoying being led in honky donks (heavy boots, Suffolk) across a lèig-chruthaich (quivering bog with water trapped beneath, Scots Gaelic) at dimmity (twilight, Devon), up a bostal (steep hillside path, Kent, Sussex) through a bearna ghaoite (wind gap in the mountains, Irish) to collect brosny (dry sticks for lighting a fire, Northern Ireland).


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