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Mardy ducks: Nottingham Dialect Words

Artefact 2: Dialect | Feature 2 of 4

Dialect and Ducks in the work of D.H. Lawrence – Video by James Walker

Dialects do not stand still. New words appear, old words vanish. In this second of four essays, linguist Natalie Braber reveals the origin and use of some specific words which have formed Nottingham dialect.

Natalie Braber

Natalie Braber @nataliebraber

Looking at the work of authors such as D.H. Lawrence allows us to see how words were used in the past and what they meant. There are also other ways of charting the meaning of words over time. The English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), compiled by Joseph Wright, is a six-volume work published between 1898 and 1905 and represents the most comprehensive inventory of dialect words in use in the nineteenth century. If you are interested in learning more, you can even do so from home. A digitized version of the EDD has been made available by Innsbruck University and can be used free of charge for non-institutional, non-profit purposes. See English Dialect Dictionary for more info.

Nottingham had and has a distinctive way of speaking. Compared to some other dialects around the UK, not much research has been carried out on it. However, there has been some. John Beeton, who wrote Nottingham as it is Spoke, has stated that it may appear as if ‘Nottinghamese is a form of slang born out of a lazy or slovenly method of speaking, but closer inspection shows that it is, in fact, a complete language, containing many unique words and observing a strict grammatical pattern’. He has commented that local speech is loud and strident and also suggested that there should be no pauses between words. Many of his examples show a fondness for combining words in a single orthographic string, for example ‘ayaseenoatonnimm?’ [= ‘have you seen him at all’?].

But where did this dialect come from? The word Nottingham itself means ‘settlement of the family of Snot’. It is likely to have come from the original Saxon words where -inge appears in place names following a person’s name and means ‘the people or followers of’ so that Snotingeham means ‘the homestead of Snot’s people’. During Norman times the initial S was dropped from the name, as they found the combination of consonants at the beginning of the word difficult to pronounce.

Even earlier than this, we can see Nordic influences. The Vikings who came to Britain were from two present-day Scandinavian countries – Norway and Denmark – where different dialects were spoken, so that there were different influences throughout the UK. In the East Midlands, the Danish invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries resulted in significant Norse influences in the East Midlands.

However, the Scandinavian influence is in general weaker in Derbyshire than in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire (or Lincolnshire), but it is still present. We can see this in street names, where gata means ‘way’ or ‘street’, such as in Irongate and Sadler Gate in Derby, Church Gate and Gallowtree Gate in Leicester and Goosegate in Nottingham and in many street names linked to local trades, such as Flesher Gate for butchers (flesher is a historic dialect term for ‘butcher’), Bridlesmith Gate for harness-makers and Griddlesmith Gate for bakers.

Another influence came from the land. The landscape of the East Midlands has long been shaped by agriculture – the various soils of the region support successful farming of both animals and crops. It also had an important position in the region historically; the earliest remaining evidence of farming in the region dates from Roman times and shows that the Romans bridged the Trent and built villas with land for farming near the bridge.

This activity has resulted in distinct local vocabulary. From names for equipment and jobs such as bird tenting [= ‘scaring away birds using a clapper’] and brushing [= ‘trimming field hedges’] to distinctive ways of calling animals and describing the noises they make. In the region there are different ways of referring to the noises animals make and to the calls farmers make to their animals.

The Survey of English Dialects was a ground breaking nation-wide survey which collected data from around England in the 1950s and gathered local words and pronunciations. You can listen to many extracts at Accents and Dialects Some of the data collected in Nottinghamshire show that cows and bulls ‘blooer’ and to call a sheep a farmer would say ‘come yowe!’. It would be ‘cup cup’ to beckon a horse, ‘otch otch’ for chickens and ‘cush cush’ for cows. Chickens live in a fahl-ahse (i.e. ‘fowl house’ with localised pronunciation). There are also local names for animals, often used by people who are not farmers and farm labourers, such as ‘bobbo’ for horse. Many more examples can be found in Nottinghamshire Dialect, which I wrote in 2015.

Many of these words are no longer used by speakers, but there are now other words which show that a speaker comes from Nottingham. Such words continue to be relevant for signalling membership of a speech community or affiliation to a particular place. Two very frequently named words from the people I have interviewed in the region are ‘mardy’ and ‘duck’.

Thar’t a Mard Arse – YouTube video by James Walker, edited by Izaak Bosman

“….Is it just too fanciful to make some explicit language-related connections and parallels between Paul Morel and Lawrence himself? Like Paul, Lawrence eventually goes out into the world, ostensibly leaving behind both community and (dead) mother. However, it is clear to us (to this reader at any rate) that Lawrence actually took both the community and the dialect with him – at least deep in his consciousness and literary sensibility if not in his actual speech. He then gave them to the world and, in effect, back to the community in re-created form. And, most significantly in the case of the dialect, in a permanent, because written, form. May I personally claim this as Lawrence’s most precious gift to Eastwood and its community?”

Mardy poses an interesting dilemma for dialectologists as it is claimed by speakers from several locations as being ‘local’ to that region. A review of contributions to the Urban Dictionary (online) suggests that this word is used in many areas of the north, including the East Midlands, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Manchester. Many contributors claim that it originates from Derby and is related either to the word ‘moody’ or to the French word ‘merde’ (meaning ‘shit’), but this is not supported by more authoritative sources. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tentatively suggests it may be derived from mar [= ‘to spoil’] and categorises it as ‘English regional (chiefly north)’ and the EDD entry at mar includes citations for mardy [= ‘spoilt child’] from Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire and Sheffield. We encounter mardy in both Alan Sillitoe and D.H. Lawrence’s work, both local writers who frequently use East Midlands dialect in their work. It is invariably cited by East Midlanders as a typical ‘local’ term and, not surprisingly, features prominently in Dukki merchandise, a local shop which sells Nottingham-themed products.

Opie & Opie have said that ‘To people in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire the term mardy has a meaning of its own’ and many of the students I worked with who carried out a local ‘mind map’ exercise cited mardy as one of the most illustrative examples of local language. I carried-out some work with a group of school children who were asked to draw a ‘local’ word, many of whom picked mardy as being salient to them.

The word mardy was also one of the most popular submissions to The British Library WordBank. Several contributors claimed it as an exclusively Leicester word or claimed it was unique to Nottingham, but it clearly occurs over a wide area of the North and Midlands, and despite the dispute over ‘ownership’, East Midlanders are clearly united in their affection for the word.

A selection of observations from WordBank contributors offers a glimpse of how it embodies a sense of local identity and illustrates the subtle distinctions speakers make between mardy and other more mainstream variants for ‘moody’. A contributor from Leicester comments ‘when I was a child I thought that everybody said mardy and I remember one day not knowing how to spell it so I tried to look it up in the dictionary and was slightly concerned that I couldn’t find it thinking the dictionary must be wrong until I realised that mardy was a slang word from the area in which I live. Having now lived all over the country I don’t tend to use mardy very often any more but whenever I do you can either see the blankness on people’s face or if they nod you know you’re talking to someone usually from the Midlands often particularly from Leicester and some sort of bond occurs just because of a simple word like mardy which basically means grumpy disgruntled irritable’.

A speaker from Ashby-de-la-Zouch defined it as ‘being grumpy and grouchy but more stroppy than that like a four-year-old throwing a paddy and mardy weather is overcast cold and rainy’ and a contributor from Nottinghamshire claims mardy comes from Nottingham and usually refers to a ‘sullen or bad-tempered child’. The age range of the contributors suggests mardy is used by both younger and older speakers equally enthusiastically and is clearly still very much an example of local dialect in current usage. Not only does it crop up frequently in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Sillitoe, 1958), set in Nottingham, but perhaps more pertinently you now hear young people all over the world singing along to the hit single ‘Mardy Bum’ by Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys (2004), meaning this nineteenth-century East Midlands dialect word now enjoys international currency.

‘Duck’ is also seen as being very typical to Nottingham and surrounding areas. There are a number of local words used as an affectionate form of address when greeting people and the word ‘duck’ was consistently supplied in this sense by the groups of school children I interviewed as one of the strongest markers of local identity. It is mentioned in most of the BBC Voices Recordings from the region, and indeed commented on by speakers in other areas as typical of speech in the East Midlands. The word is so salient, a picture of a duck suffices to make the word clear. This image of a duck appears on Nottingham buses, advertising the local television station, Notts TV.

Frequently added to this most iconic East Midlands word is the phrase ‘ey up’, and these are often used in conjunction with one another. An obvious example of this is the title of one of the most famous local dialect books – Ey up mi duck! (by Richard Scollins and John Titford). As an affectionate form of address, duck – or equally commonly, me duck – is particularly interesting as it is used universally, by and to men and women, which is rather unusual for forms of address, which tend to be different for female and male referents.

The exact origin of duck in this sense is unknown, but it has been suggested it may come from a respectful form of address during Anglo-Saxon times and the OED records it from 1600 in this sense (including evidence from Shakespeare). The origins of ‘ey up’ as a greeting are similarly unclear, but the expression can also be used as a warning to be careful or as an exhortation to take note. There are other forms of address, such as ‘kiddo’ and ‘lad’, used by and to men, which were discussed by the ex-miners who were part of my ‘Pit Talk’ project, where they also gave variants such as ‘mucka’, ‘mi owd’, ‘sirree’, ‘youth’ and ‘lad’, but none are as common or as popular as ‘duck’.

Looking at the usage of these types of words, where they come from and how they change, is a crucial part of understanding language and identity. We can use language to show where we belong and we should never be ashamed of doing so.

This is an abridged version of the work found in East Midlands English written by Natalie Braber and Jonnie Robinson and published by Mouton de Gruyter in 2018.

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