Vulgar descendants: Anglo-Norman in dialect and slang


This summary map gives a general overview of where Anglo-Norman words are found in English dialects, with an indication of their relative numbers.

Areas shaded red (some northern parts of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset) have the greatest number of such words, followed by areas shaded pink(remaining parts of Cornwall and the northern part of Devon, along with the Welsh marches, the Vale of York, Western Linconlnshire and the northern areas of Northumberland and Cumberland) then those shaded yellow ( the remainder of the Scottish border regions, Yorkshire and Westmoreland, Southern Lancashire and Cheshire, the Thames Estuary and South Midlands areas). In the remaining areas, in white on the map, including East Anglia and the Southerly Home Counties, the number of such words is negligible (N.B. the numerals on the map represent the counties and regions concerned, and are of no relevance to the word counts). The data is derived from H. Orton, Survey of English Dialects, 12 vols, Leeds: E.J. Arnold 1962-1971, and the maps based on those in H. Orton and N. Wright, A Word Geography of England, London: Seminar Press, 1974.

A Chaucerian handful

Because Anglo-Norman was the language of the nobility, people tend to assume that all the words it contributed to English were more or less ‘noble’ in use and meaning. This view, though seriously mistaken, is still to be found even in recent surveys of the history of English, especially those intended for (and sometimes also written by) people for whom ‘language’ means mainly the language of literature.

Those who repeat such views have apparently not stopped to think about where some of the more common vulgar terms in English come from (bastard, bugger) and, even within literature, have overlooked Chaucer’s host’s earthy and polyglot abuse of the Pardoner: ‘I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond …’ and so on (carrying on in English with: ‘… They shul be shryned in an hogges tord’) (Pardoner’s Tale 624).

Chaucer is particularly important because for many people he is their only contact with medieval English, and because his work is the centre of a whole research industry, where his claimed use of ‘French’ borrowings is a perennial topic. Coillon/cullion may come from a ‘prestige language’ but as we all know (although the French Academy sometimes forgets it) even prestige languages – and their speakers – need and use rude words too. Since Chaucer’s day, it has disappeared from mainstream English, though it survived for a time as a term of abuse (‘contemptible fellow’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED; or ‘poltroon’, as the English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright rather quaintly puts it), and is now restricted to certain dialects. This meaning is found in both Anglo-Norman itself, and in modern French.

Coillon / cullion is typical in surviving in some dialects and being otherwise obsolete: in general, dialects preserve words (and often also grammatical structures) which were once more widely used. That is why, as we shall see shortly, we sometimes find in English dialects words of Anglo-Saxon origin that have been replaced in standard English by Anglo-Norman forms, although we will also discover Anglo-Norman words that either never made it into modern standard English, or failed to establish themselves there, but are still holding on in dialects.

Dossers in the gutter

Anglo-Norman, then, is not only the language of the court, courtiers and courtly love. It clearly made many more down-to-earth contributions to English. Even without venturing into dialects, most English speakers will be familiar with both the verb to doss (down), and the pejorative dosser for someone who sleeps rough – or in a doss-house – but perhaps without realizing the link between these words in colloquial English, and the Anglo-Norman, and indeed French dos, ‘back’. Doss and dosser are becoming increasingly accepted and increasingly neutral.

Many perfectly ordinary Anglo-Norman words survive in accepted, neutral, standard English and must (presumably) have displaced what was there before. Standard English gutter is directly from Anglo-Norman gutere (coming ultimately from a word for ‘drop of water’, modern French goutte); whereas many of its dialect counterparts (spouting in the East Midlands, troughing in Herefordshire and Shropshire, for example) are from Old English. Indeed, usually, English dialect words are ‘English’ in the sense of coming from Anglo-Saxon, or sometimes Norse or other Germanic languages, and maybe that is why in the main the Anglo-Norman dialectal elements have been rather overlooked.

But gutter is not the only Anglo-Norman contribution to naming this particular item of domestic drainage. What should we make of the word launder in this sense, isolated in a pocket of south Derbyshire? It derives from the Anglo-Norman lavandiere, and is clearly related to laundry, which is also from Anglo-Norman. Laundry and laundress and the verb to launder are standard English; launder (the noun) in the sense of ‘gutter’ is dialectal. Though the word which lay behind launder = ‘gutter’ came from Anglo-Norman, it does not appear to have developed this particular sense among Anglo-Norman, or even Middle English speakers: that occurred within early modern English, and the sense is still found in writing towards the end of the nineteenth century (OED). In other words, even within words derived from Anglo-Norman, there were ‘competing’ words: gutter makes it into the standard, pushing out the English words; launder stays in a small dialectal area (at least with this sense), is obsolete with the meaning of ‘a person who washes clothes’, and has been transferred into the technical jargon of mining, with the derived sense (obviously related to ‘gutter’) of a ‘trough for washing ore’.

Pokes and vennels

Next, then, to words in standard English — but by no means all of a high literary type — which come from Anglo-Norman, and the vulgarisms, many perfectly respectable words are still with us from Anglo-Norman, but not just in the ‘higher’ levels of the language – and some not even in standard English, but tucked away, like launder, in dialects. Scots is particularly well-equipped: ashet, ‘plate’, and vennel meaning ‘alley’ (itself an Anglo-Norman word, though now standard English). Alongside the Scots and Ulster ‘vennel’ (for example linking Grassmarket and Lauriston Place in Edinburgh), we find the Northern English ginnel (in Skipton, but also in Harrogate and other places in the region). Both are from the Anglo-Norman venele, a diminutive of the word for ‘vein’). Although the origin is less well-known, the Scottish national dish, haggis comes from Anglo-Norman (compare French hachis), and indeed, or so it seems – see again the OED – the festival of Hogmanay, derived from Normandy, and similar practices in Normandy (it must be said, by a rather tortuous and probably bibulous route). To this day, Scots and northern English retain in everyday usage bonny from bonne and for most speakers it is probably not even thought of as ‘dialectal’. Not many of us now have cause to buy a ‘pig in a poke’ in its original literal meaning, or know that, like Lucy Locket’s pocket (the diminutive of the same word) it is the same word as pouch, and comes from Anglo-Norman poke. It was still in use with the original sense of ‘sack’ in an area of Westmorland and the Pennines when Harold Orton carried out his research for the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s, and today some supermarkets in the Scottish Lowlands offer “wee green pokes” made from dyed jute to customers at the checkout in lieu of plastic bags.

Dialects often preserve usages which have slipped out of what became standard English, a phenomenon found in the standardisation of other languages as well. At least with poke, described by the OED as ‘now regional except in pig in a poke’, the word is preserved within that single phrase. Many other Anglo-Norman words have disappeared altogether except in dialect, and there, too, they are unlikely to survive indefinitely. This is where historical dictionaries like the OED, or surveys like Professor Orton’s, are invaluable ‘archaeological’ records of lost language, museums of extinct species which evolution has left behind. A few such specimens follow. Where indicated, clicking on the word will open up a map of its geographical distribution.

Scattered survivals

Amongst these are words like bever, ‘a snack’, usually taken during the afternoon by workmen, and visibly derived from the Anglo-Norman verb beivre, ‘to drink’ although it does not necessarily entail drinking. The Survey of English Dialects puts it in a belt running up from north of the Thames Estuary to Northamptonshire and a little way beyond.

Or cratch, ‘a hay-rack in a stable’, from Anglo-Norman creche, exactly the same word as the now re-borrowed modern French crèche, this time with the sense of ‘children’s nursery’. Cratch is found between Derbyshire and Monmouthshire, towards the western border of England and into the Welsh marches.

Causey is the original (and Anglo-Norman) form of modern English causeway, which has added the (Germanic) –way to a word derived from chaucee, modern French chaussée, familiar to British motorists on the notices about chaussée déformée (‘damaged surface’). Causey means a ‘raised roadway’, or (in Devon in the early 1970s, at least) a ‘slipway’. It is widespread in English dialects because it was clearly the original, and widely-used, word before the advent of causeway in the fifteenth century.

From Cumbria comes the word few, which the English Dialect Dictionary attaches to Old French (by which is meant Anglo-Norman) fuir, fuer, ‘to dig’. But the examples given do not seem quite to capture the sense of the word as it is used in modern Cumbrian where people will talk of someone having ‘no few’, that is, lacking energy and drive. Perhaps the source of that word is in fact Anglo-Norman feu? The connection with fuir, at any rate, seems problematic.

Few in the north-west is mirrored by two words from the south-west: fitchew, ‘polecat’, from Anglo-Norman ficheux, in the northern half of Devon and nearly all of Cornwall, and sporadically in Warwickshire; and mommet, for a ‘scarecrow’, found in North Devon and Somerset, in parts of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire as well as in France, in the Rhône valley.

It derives from from Anglo-Norman mahumet, i.e. ‘a pagan idol’ (apparently reflecting a radically mistaken notion that in Islam images of the Prophet, which are of course strictly forbidden, are not only made but actually worshipped). The shifts in meaning are clear: from ‘Mahomet’ to a statute of Mahomet, to an effigy in general, to an effigy specifically meant to frighten birds. In all probability, both fitchew and mommet, which now occupy quite restricted territories, were once more widely used and known.

Animal names are well known for showing wide regional variations, although most vernacular forms in English are of Anglo-Saxon rather than Anglo-Norman origin. Fitchew is a partial exception (partial in that, strictly speaking, only the ending is Anglo-Norman) but a clear Anglo-Norman case is cricket ( criket in Anglo-Norman) and the non-standard grig. The origin of these is France and in north-eastern French, in Picardy, there are forms in gr-. The English Dialect Dictionary gives grig from both north (Northumberland, Yorkshire, Lancashire) and south (Suffolk, Somerset); in the expression ‘merry as a grig’, it is certainly more widely known than that — or perhaps the linguistic frontiers are just more porous than we sometimes think.

Urchins and rubbish

More surprising is the distribution of an Anglo-Norman name for ‘hedgehog’. Right across northern England – Yorkshire, Westmorland, Cumberland – and in an area of the West Midlands across to Wales, in Worcestershire and Shropshire, the word is urchin, a derivative of Anglo-Norman heriçun, (modern French hérisson).

This is particularly surprising since modern English also has variants for hedgehog (notably hedgepig) which are entirely Anglo-Saxon. Why has an Anglo-Norman word been dropped in? The compound sea-urchin preserves the word in this sense, which was the original one from which modern standard English urchin (as the OED says, ‘often applied with commiserative force to children poorly, raggedly, or untidily clothed’) derives. In other words, standard English retains the derived sense, and dialect keeps the original sense alive. Also from the animal world, this time domestic, comes seam, meaning ‘animal fat’ (Anglo-Norman saim) specifically around a pig’s kidneys, which is geographically limited to Cumberland and Northumberland and parts of East Anglia.

And finally: rubbish! The word rubbish is itself originally Anglo-Norman (robouse) and is related (though quite how, is not too clear) to rubble. Rubbish has now become the standard English word, over most of England, with ket (originally Norse) in a band across Westmorland and County Durham, and two isolated pockets of competing Anglo-Norman words: rammel and rummage.

Rammel, found in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire is from Anglo-Norman ramaille, originally ‘brushwood, branches’; and rummage (putatively from Anglo-Norman arrumage, although no example of that form has so far been found in an Anglo-Norman source) occurs in Devon. This is the same word as the verb to rummage which (unlike the noun) is widespread and now standard English. Why two additional Anglo-Norman terms should have become implanted, and in these two particular areas, is puzzling. Both clearly also involve shifts in meaning from the senses of the original imports.

The specific questions raised by the words for ‘rubbish’ are typical of those raised by all the Anglo-Norman words considered here. None of them belongs to the ‘elevated’ spheres where the Anglo-Norman contribution to English is usually claimed to lie. Many were probably once more widespread in English, and they seem to have developed their now dialectal meanings within English itself, rather than in Anglo-Norman. The Anglo-Norman word came into English, developed a range if meanings there (some perhaps restricted, some now certainly lost) and some of those meanings (and in some cases, the words themselves) have now ‘retreated’ to more restricted areas – and then ‘retreated’ still further, in that they have ceased to be part of normal English usage even in those areas.

Anglo-Norman Was Here

This, of course, is an inevitable part of the process of the standardization of English itself, and thus the squeezing out of the dialects. There is another possible explanation: that certain areas of the country have for some reason adopted Anglo-Norman terminology in isolation, with different words in different places, and retained it in use, withstanding first the pressure of vernacular English, then the standardisation process of English that began in the fifteenth century or so. That could make sense for Scotland, but it seems unlikely for such widely scattered regions of England. What the maps show is how widely dispersed these Anglo-Norman words are: which in turn suggests how widespread the use, or at least knowledge, of Anglo-Norman must once have been. If the use of Anglo-Norman had not reached into these often far-flung corners of England, its archaeological remains, in the form of English dialect words, would not be there. The summary map at the head of this page shows the extent of the penetration, and gives an idea of how important the contribution of Anglo-Norman has been to genuinely vernacular English.