Don’t fret, canny lad

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


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!

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

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.