Don’t fret, canny lad

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A sea fret is known as a ‘roke’ in Yorkshire dialect. Pictures by Alastair Smith

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I was having a chat with a lady from Lockton near Pickering who is a regular reader of my columns and she asked me if I had ever come across the dialect word ‘roke’. She’d heard it some years ago when a local man used it and she had to ask what it meant.

He told her that it referred to the mist that rolls in from the sea, otherwise called a sea fret or sea fog. A fret feels and looks different to your average fog, and can stubbornly hug the coastline, leaving it dark and damp, while the rest of us are basking in blazing sunshine. It occurs when warm air drifts over a cold sea, and it thus cools down and condenses, creating the fog. If it is a calm day, the fret will likely remain hanging over the water, but if the right breeze is blowing, it will be pushed onshore, and sometimes even further inland. Frets can last for a few hours, or a few days, depending on the ground temperature, the strength of the wind, and the heat of the sun.

Frets can appear very suddenly, and reduce visibility substantially, which is why sailors have to be well prepared to ensure they don’t get disorientated when it descends.

According to my dad’s Yorkshire dialect dictionary, it can also be spelled ‘rawk’, and a second meaning is a line or scratch, such as you might find on a piece of furniture. ‘Rawky’ means cold, damp and misty, while ‘muck-rawk’ refers to a dirty line or tide mark, the like of which you might see on someone’s neck showing the limit of where they have washed.

I have visited the Netherlands many times and know that the Dutch word for smoke is ‘rook’ (pronounced like roke) and its origins likely lie in the Old Norse term ‘roka’ meaning fine spray or whirlwind. Indeed, the word ‘reek’, meaning ‘stink’, is a relative, as is the first syllable of the Icelandic capital ‘Reykjavik’, which means ‘Bay of Smoke’.

There are a number of words and names used along the East Coast of England that are very similar to modern Dutch. It is little surprise, bearing in mind the country’s history as a seafaring nation, and us being the first land they would come to if they set sail in a westerly direction. In our seaside towns you often see the word ‘strand’ used in various ways. In Dutch, the ‘strand’ is the beach. My sister used to live in Bournemouth, and she would frequent a restaurant with stunning ocean views housed in a building called ‘The Overstrand’, the translation from the Dutch being ‘on the beach’.

In many of our communities you will also find an ‘Outgang Road’ or ‘Outgang Lane’. In Dutch ‘outgang’ (uitgang) means ‘exit’ and invariably, if you follow these streets, they will lead you away from town.

In my dad’s column from 3rd April 1982, he talks about another dialect word, ‘canny’, and its various uses. It is commonly associated with Tyneside rather than North Yorkshire, but it was (and still is) spoken here. It is uttered in many contexts and your meaning is conveyed by your tone of voice and facial expression, and depending on that it can mean nice, kind, clever, funny, careful, cunning, or even deceitful.

Calling someone a “canny lad” with a warm smile on your face is a compliment. But exclaiming “Why you canny little tyke!” with a frown is rather less so. It could also be used to rate a piece of work: “Thoo’s made a canny job ‘o that!”, or to warn someone to be careful if it is a tricky task: “Tak care to be a bit canny wi’ that.”

It can also be used to to signify your approval when a choice is involved. For example: “Aye, that’s a canny spot for a picnic.” Or to signify you’ve enjoyed something: “Eee, that were a canny pint ‘o beer.”

Even though we think of it as a dialect word, it does have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary where it is defined firstly as ‘Shrewd, especially in financial or business matters’, then secondly as ‘pleasant, nice’. It suggests it originated in 16th century Scotland, derived from the word ‘can’, now more commonly spelled ‘ken’, which means ‘know’.

I must say, I’ve had a canny time writing this piece!

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

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 1st April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 30th March 2022.