Thursday, 19 November 2015

Butter my wig! - the Sussex dialect

To my ears as a young boy, the accent of my grandmother's second husband was a strange dialect which resembled that of a farmer from the deep West Country of England. I would not have been surprised to learn that he was born and bred in some tiny rural Cornish parish. However, he had spent his entire life in Sussex and his accent and some of the phrases he used were pure Sussex. Sadly, like many dialects, it is now dying out, having been slowly watered down and changed over time owing largely to greater mobility.

I decided to set my most recent genealogical crime mystery - The America Ground - in and around Hastings, Sussex in the 1820s and very much wanted the characters' dialogue to be as genuine as possible. Inevitably, some compromises had to be made in the writing process and I had to make it so that unfamiliar words could be understood by their context. (Anyone fancy a Huckle-my-buff?)

For my research, I drew on several books that dealt with the Sussex dialect, most notably The Reverend W.D. Parish's A Dictionary of The Sussex Dialect.


First published in 1875, the book's introduction neatly summarises the gradual decline of the dialect: 'In 1924, the rural novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith rather beautifully illustrated her fears for the future of the Sussex dialect. How would three generations from the same Sussex household respond verbally today, she asked, to the question of whether a storm was coming? Well, let's start with 'Grandfather', born perhaps in the 1860s, and accustomed to country ways. 'Surelye, fur de ships' tails is all to wind'ard,' the old man would observe, sagely, in pure bucolic vernacular...representing the next generation would be 'Father,' who had received a state education: 'Well, it may be, for the glass is low.' Finally, and most worryingly, it would be the turn of 'Sonny,' a child reared in a period of unstoppable 'Londonisation'. What do you think, Sonny: is there a storm coming? And in the universal cockney, 'Not half!' would be Sonny's depressingly cheerful reply....The time was fast approaching when a large number of people living in Sussex would be clueless about its traditional words, and deaf to its traditional pronunciations.' 

Parish begins his dictionary with suggestion of the origins of certain Sussex words or phrases, many of which lingered from past invasions. 'What a peter-grievous child you are!' Parish believes this phrase, like many others, to derive from the French, petit grief and 'We're all of a dishabille' from d├ęshabiller. Other languages such as Latin were also drawn on and some Old English terms, such as 'maxon' for manure heap and 'mew' for a seagull were also in use.

Parish noted the 'not unfrequent' use of the reduplicated plural, which I rather like! He states that 'a Sussex man would see nothing absurd in saying, "I saw the ghostessess, sitting on postesses, eating of their toastesses, and fighting with their fistesses."'

A large number of the words in the dictionary derive from the particular coastal landscape and nature found in Sussex. Apparently there are at least 30 words to describe mud. Some nature descriptions which I particularly enjoyed reading were 'A naughty man's play thing' for stinging nettle, 'shog' for the core of an apple and 'storm cock' for a mistle thrush.

Among the other works I consulted for as part of my research process were David Arscott's We Won't be Druv. The title comes from a once-renowned Sussex saying, meaning 'We won't be driven (to do what we don't wish to do!).' Fiction work included Stella Gibbon's amusing parody of Sussex life, Cold Comfort Farm. Another book, written entirely in dialect is Tom Clapdpole's Jurney to Lunnun...told by himself and written in pure Sussex doggerel by his Uncle Tim.


This is one of my favourite scenes using Sussex dialect in The America Ground:

Harriet set the food and drinks onto a tea tray and made her way upstairs, this time ensuring that her feet fell on each and every noisy board, so as to be sure to alert the woman of her arrival.
‘Butter-my-wig, if it ain’t the newest of draggle-tails come into my room,’ Widow Elphick chided. She was sitting up in bed wearing a cream petticoat. ‘Miss Rutherford be sparing you the day, has she?’
Harriet bit down on her lip and placed the tray beside the bed. ‘Beer, water, bread and cheese for you,’ she said warmly, hastening towards the door.
‘I be a-talking to you, you filthy little wretch. You be thick of hearing?’ Widow Elphick shouted, making Harriet stop dead. ‘Least you could do is a-look at me.’

I will close this blog with some of my all-time words and phrases, which I am trying to resurrect (at least in my household!) - maybe you could casually drop some into your conversations at home?!
  • Butter-my-wig - a strong assertion
  • Chuckle-headed - stupid
  • Concerned in liquor - drunk
  • Dead alive - stupid
  • Dish of tongues - a scolding
  • Draggle-tail - slut
  • Fluttergrub - someone who likes working in the dirt
  • Gape seed - something to stare at - what are you sowing gape seed at?
  • Huckle-my-buff - a beverage composed of beer, eggs and brandy (admittedly not a great call for that in my house...)
  • Muck-grubber - a sordid miser
  • Dabbler - a gossip
  • Romney Marsh - there is a saying in Sussex that the world is divided into five parts: Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh. Love it!
  • Swallocky - appearance of clouds in hot weather, before a thunderstorm
  • Thick-of-hearing - deaf