Calling all you Queans!

What would you call this? A snicket, snickleway, alley, back, or twitten? Or do you have another word?

I wonder if you are one of the millions of people who has become hooked on the game called ‘Wordle’? This is a daily online puzzle where you have six chances to guess a mystery five-letter word. There is a new challenge every day, and it has become extraordinarily successful since it was launched in October last year by programmer Josh Wardle. It became so popular that it was bought by the New York Times in January for an undisclosed sum.

The beauty of the game lies in its simplicity, and it is enjoyed across the generations. I play along with my children, my colleagues and my mum, and we all compare how well we do each day. It has spawned a plethora of copycats, including Globle (where you guess a new country each day), Quordle (where you guess four words simultaneously), Sweardle and Lewdle (I’ll leave you to work out what they are!).

Being a wordsmith by trade, I love the fact that by taking part, our youngsters are using and expanding their vocabulary each day, and also that we are all enjoying a common pastime, something that is fairly rare nowadays. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that are the most successful. It will be interesting to see if it is just a passing phase, or whether Wordle has the staying power of the giants of the wording world like Scrabble and Articulate.

On the subject of words, I was at a friend’s house for dinner and the nine us (from different parts of the UK and beyond) got to talking about dialects, and we had the usual discussion over the variety words for an alley, such as ginnel, gennel, gunnel, backs, twitten, snicket and snickelway, to name just a few. The word ‘brossen’ also cropped up, which I’d not come across, and is a West Yorkshire term for feeling full after eating. Backy is also used to refer to a lift on the back of a pushbike, although I would always say ‘croggy’.  One of my friends moved to Yorkshire from Wales when she was a teenager, and found that when she used words that were common back in Wales, the Yorkshire folk just didn’t understand them.

She said: “People used to look at us funny when we first moved to Yorkshire and used our Welsh words. ‘Cwtch’ means to give a cuddle and ‘chopsy’ means to be a bit mouthy! My dad used to say it to me all the time!” She adds: “Nobbling means you’re freezing. And when I moved to Yorkshire I was baffled when I overheard a conversation saying, “She’s flitting because she’s courting.”

In my dad’s column from 13th March 1982, he refers to some dialect words that were brought to his attention. A reader from Kilburn had asked if he had heard of the term ‘femmer’ meaning ‘weak’. He hadn’t (and neither have I) but having consulted his Yorkshire dialect glossaries, he found it, and it was defined as meaning weak, effeminate and delicate as a result of sickness. It can also mean something or someone that is very slender, and person can be ‘as femmer as a cobweb’.

I wonder, like my dad did back in 1982, whether there is a connection to the word ‘feminine’? Perhaps the etymologists among you will enlighten me. Another dialect word is ‘weeanish’ which comes from ‘weean’, an ancient word meaning ‘woman’. Saying a man had ‘weeanish ways’ was a derogatory term describing him as effeminate. It can also mean childish, and over the years, the term ‘wean’ has come to be associated with adults feeding their young.

There used to be a word bandied about in North Yorkshire which was a derogatory way of referring to women, and that was ‘quean’. In his ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare uses the line ‘a witch, a quean, and old cozening quean’, to refer to one of the female characters. ‘Cozening’ is another ancient word which means to deceive or win someone over through trickery. ‘Quean’ may come from the Danish word ‘quind’ which was an abusive term applied to women. Obviously, ‘weean’ and ‘quean’ sound very similar, so it is possible they were, at one point, one and the same word.

As I’m due to go out tonight with a few hard-drinking friends, I have a feeling I will wake up in the morning with a touch of the ‘femmers’!

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 11th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 9th March 2022.

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