‘owse tha’ doin’?

Those who live on the North York Moors have their own dialect words such as ‘swang’ which means ‘boggy ground’, and ‘rigwelted’, which is a sheep that is on its back and can’t get up again.


In his column from 14th November 1981, my dad mentions a letter he received from a reader who had come across several farms with the word ‘swang’ in their name and wondered what it meant.

The word crops up all over North Yorkshire and as well as Swang Farm, I have found Swang Head, Swang Plantation and Swang Road. I believe it has Scandinavian origins and means a wet, marshy tract of low-lying land. The name came to be used across the moors, even referring to high-lying fields that were prone to being waterlogged. Although many areas were drained in later years, the term ‘swang’ stuck. It is a word that is new to me, but I wonder if any of you still use it, or know any places that feature it? Incidentally, during my research I came across a Swing Swang Lane in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Is it just me, or does that sound like the description of a rather jaunty way to walk? Next time I go for a potter, I’m going to inject a hint of swing swang into my stride.

In the same vein, another unusual dialect word used in connection with farms is ‘owse’, which is pronounced like ‘grouse’. Another reader had written to my dad because she wanted to know why a nearby outbuilding was known as the ‘owse house’ (and locally would have been pronounced owse ‘ouse, dropping the ‘h’). She wondered if at one time this outbuilding would have been connected to the original property and as such the name simply meant ‘house house’.

In fact, the word ‘owse’ was once very common and used across the North York Moors to refer to oxen, with an ‘owse house’ being where they were kept. It is sometimes spelled ‘ouce’, and the plural is ‘owcen’. Does anyone out there still use an ‘owse ‘ouse’ I wonder?

The word theme continues to prompt people to get in touch, and following my column a few weeks about Yorkshire slang words like ‘tyke’ and ‘bramah’, reader Clare Proctor wrote that she had not heard of those two, but “…when I first moved to Rosedale, two farmers could have a whole conversation and the only word I would understand was the occasional expletive! I once told someone I had seen a dead sheep on the moors with its legs in the air and was told ‘it were rigwelted’.”

This excellent-sounding term has its roots in Old Norse, with ‘rygg’ meaning ‘back’ and ‘velte’ meaning ‘overturn’. A sheep is said to be ‘rigged’, ‘rigwelted’, or ‘riggweltered’ when it has rolled on to its back and cannot right itself, which is more likely to occur when it is pregnant. It can also be used to describe someone who is confined to bed for a long period as a result of illness or fatigue. There is an ale brewed by a well-known Yorkshire firm that is named after this phenomenon, and with an alcohol content of 5.4%, then have too much and you are very likely to end up rigwelted too.

One of the stereotypes of us Yorkshire folk is that we are tight with our money, as borne out by the well-known saying sent to me by reader Lynn Catena:

‘Ear all, see all an say nowt. Eat all, sup all an pay nowt.

An, if iver tha duz owt for nowt, do it fur thissen.’

Some say that a Yorkshireman is like a Scotsman, but with all the generosity squeezed out. Of course there are those who are, let’s say, ‘careful’ with their money, but then aren’t there people like that everywhere? Most Yorkshire folk I encounter are warm and generous to a fault, but if you know otherwise, then do send me your tales of tight Tykes.

We Yorkshire folk also have a reputation for being stubborn. I’d like to point out that if myself, my dad, my sister, my brother, my aunt, my uncle, my nana and many, many members of my extended family are anything to go by, then that is only true because we are always right, as everyone should know. 

But I’d like to end with a comment I have mentioned before, one I heard made by a TV commentator some years ago: “Of all the regions of our great country, Yorkshire seems to pride itself on taking most pride in itself.” Yes sir, we certainly do.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th and the Gazette & Herald on 10th November 2021

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