The Word-Hoard Slightly Foxed Header, Claire Dalby Wood Engraving

The Word-Hoard: Love Letters to Our Land

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After weeks sitting at the computer, I am unmistakably DESKET (‘dazed, inactive, stupid, dull, as a person’)

At this time of year, the build-up of desket syndrome at SF HQ is increasingly problematic, and the prospect of escaping the city for a dose of the natural world becomes more appealing by the day. High up on our current wish list of excursions is a day out at The Word-Hoard exhibition at William Wordsworth’s childhood home in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth. Not least because we’ve teamed up with The National Trust to offer Slightly Foxed subscribers 2-for-1 adult entry to the house, garden and exhibitions.

Our friend and Slightly Foxed contributor Robert Macfarlane has guest curated the current exhibition, The Word-Hoard: Love Letters to Our Land, which builds on themes he explored in his bestselling book, Landmarks, and celebrates the beauty of our landscape and the evocative language once used to describe it. It features images by his parents, Cumbrian-based photographers Rosamund and John, alongside some of the endangered words for our landscape, weather and nature that Robert has collected.

He spent two years gathering as many place-terms and nature-words as possible, from more than thirty languages and dialects around Britain and Ireland, and then releasing them back into imaginative circulation. ‘Once you know the word smeuse, for instance, an old Sussex term for the “hole in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”, you begin to spot smeuses everywhere. Without words, the landscape can easily become a blandscape: generalized, indifferent, unobserved.’

Other words in his hoard include foggit, a Scots term for ‘covered in moss or lichen’; shuckle, Cumbrian for icicle, and pirr, Shetlandic for a ‘light breath of wind that ruffles the surface of the water’.

Inspired by this exhibition of wild words, we burrowed into our archive of back issues to find an article Robert wrote for Slightly Foxed last year, in which he delights in dialect and explores the language of landscape. We feel sure that many of you are similarly entranced by unusual words so if you have any favourites of your own, we’d love to hear them. You can get in touch with us by scrolling down to the footer of the newsletter for our various social media handles and other contact details. Meantime, please come with us on a lexicological jaunt with our self-professed ‘wordy ghost’.

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From readers

  1. P. Elliott says:

    In Suffolk, where I live, my favourite words to do with the landscape are ‘peggles’ for cowslips and ‘homedod’ or ‘hoddermedod’ for snail. A shepherd is/was called a ‘hooker’ because of his crook (presumably!). At the moment we’re all doing a fair bit of ‘pullicking’ (complaining), whether in Suffolk or not!

  2. H. King says:

    I too love linguistic quirks, oddities, and dialect. Last summer I broke a bone in my foot. In English I either turned over my ankle or went over on it. In my native Lancashire dialect I simply cruckled. Such a useful descriptive word!

  3. R. Finlay says:

    What enchantments! Thanks for this . . . Years ago I heard on Radio 4 the expression from the Bristol area ‘as happy as a bee in a snumper’ . . . A snumper is a glove on a foxglove! (It helps to use a Bristolian accent!)

  4. J. Jennings says:

    A word I heard my grandmother use here in Indiana in the 1950s was ‘freshet’. I think it was about hard spring rains when her creek came up suddenly and flooded the lower field. She couldn’t get across it to get her cows for milking. “I can’t get the cows because there’s a freshet.” I’ve read the word a couple of times in older books. You NEVER hear it now. I doubt if anyone I asked would know it. Love my Slightly Foxed!

  5. W. Edmond says:

    My favourite countryside word is ‘Mizzle’. Most of my childhood was spent in the north Cotswolds, in Gloucestershire, and I am very fond of the word ‘Mizzle’. It most aptly describes that particular form of horizontal, cold and penetrating drizzle, which swept across the hillsides hiding the views, and usually drenched most of the Easter school holidays.

  6. J. Goodall says:

    Have you heard of these Staffordshire words?
    Stiff= fat
    Snarlish= bad tempered or grizzly (usually about babies)
    Spragging= an infant’s first attempts to stand up (comes from the pit props that hold up the roof of a mine)
    Mithered= hot and bothered
    Petal, blossom, pigeon= terms of affection, usually towards children
    Sneeped= offended
    Tara= Good bye!

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