English Words

A tunky pig?
          As a child, I often heard the expression, ‘fat as a tunky pig.  My aunt’s over-fed dog, for instance, was often said to be, ‘fat as a tunky pig.
          I asked my father (who I regarded as a walking encyclopedia) how a tunky pig differed from other pigs, and was astonished when he didn’t know.  (But, to his credit, he admitted it.)  “I suppose,” he said, “it was a breed of pig.”
          I left it at that until, years later, I was researching my book, Christopher Uptake (available here, as an e-book.)  This involved finding out about the Catholicism and saints of the 16th century, and I happened to read about StAnthony the Great.  His emblem was a pig; and he came to be regarded as a saint who looked kindly upon all pigs.
Christopher Uptake by Susan Price
          It’s recorded by John Stowe that, in Elizabethan I’s reign, and probably earlier, market officials would not allow ‘unwholesome’ or underweight pigs to be sold.  Instead, they were marked by having their ears slit, and turned loose, to feed on the rubbish in the city streets.  Since all pigs were considered to be in St Anthony’s care, they were known as ‘St Anthony’s pigs,’ and left unharmed. They thrived, and soon learned to follow people who had food, making a bit of a nuisance of themselves.
          So, Stowe says, if someone pestered you for a favour, they were said to be following you ‘like a tantony pig.’  And someone who obviously fed themselves well was, ‘as fat as a tantony pig.’
          I had forgotten all about my childhood puzzlement, but when I read this, light broke in upon me.  “As fat as a tunky pig!”  ‘Tantony’,corrupted and contracted from ‘St. Anthony’ had suffered further in being passed down through generations of Protestants and – being my family – athiests.  Protestant athiests, if you will.
          Since Stowe explained its meaning in the 1500s, presumably it was an expression which was beginning to puzzle people even then.  I’m amazed by how far it staggered on down the centuries – 400 years, at least -  in frequent use by people who didn’t know what a ‘tunky pig’ was.  They probably just liked the sound of it.
          But words and phrases do survive, much better than people.  Perhaps they’re what Dawkins would call ‘memes.’
          Take the expression, ‘down in the dumps,’ meaning ‘depressed.’   How old would you say that was?  I’d assumed that it was 19th Century, perhaps a bit later – the kind of phrase found in one of those beautifully drawn Punch cartoons with a novella for a caption.   I was astonished to find it in Christopher’s Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, written in 1589 or 1590:

BARABAS. Go tell 'em the Jew of Malta sent thee, man. ..... Why, how now, Don Mathias, in a dump?

          And that racy 1970s expression ‘Come back to my pad’?  - 16th Century beggars’ cant.  They carried with them a rolled up sleeping-pad, which they often left outside towns, in lonely barns, while they made forays.  At night, they ‘went back to their pad.’  Why this re-surfaced in the ‘70s is anybody’s guess.
          That word, ‘cant’, which my Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘language peculiar to a specified group: thieves’ cant… Origin, 16th century, in sense "singing", later "whining speech", as of a beggar.'
         My mother often used the word.  She’d come in crossly, saying of someone she’d met, “Her kept me canting above half-hour and I’ve so much to do!”  Or, “Standing here canting woe mek the babby a new frock!”  For her, it meant 'gossip' or 'idle talk.'
          Coming from the Black Country, where the dialect is all that remains of Middle English, I learned a lot of very old words, which were used casually, in everyday speech.  ‘Wench’ for instance.  There was nothing ‘humorous’, as the OED puts it, or self-consciously quaint about our use of the word.  Nor did it have any sense of ‘prostitute’ as my OED insists the word originally meant.  It simply meant ‘girl’ or ‘young woman’ – just as the northern ‘lass’ does (Old Norse: ‘Laskura’, unmarried.)
          ‘Our Wench’meant ‘my sister’, as ‘Our Kid’ meant ‘my brother’.
         An editor once refused to allow me to use ‘Our Kid’ in this sense in my book, Twopence A Tub, set in the 19thCentury Black Country.  ‘Kid’ was ‘an Americanism’, she said.  I didn’t believe it then, and I see that my latest OUD (2009) gives its derivation as ‘Middle English, from Old Norse kith.’  As in ‘kith and kin’, I guess.  Ha!  Writer, 1: Editor 0.
          When, as an ‘A’ level student, I read of the king’s ‘reechy kisses’ in Hamlet, I didn’t need to look at the notes, because my mother was always wiping us down while exclaiming, “Yo’m reesty, reechy, riffy, dairty, like some kid nobody doe own!”
          When I came across ‘gledy’ (fiery) in Chaucer, I was already familiar with it because of the often heard description of people with a raucous laugh or voice: ‘like a gleed under a door.’  This, it had been explained to me, was when a small piece of burnt coal, a gleed, became trapped under a planking door and was scraped across uncarpeted, bare tiles or stone flags when the door was opened or closed.  The noise was painful.  So I knew that ‘gledy’ was associated with fire and burning.
          One more Black Country word from my childhood: malkin.  I used to think it was spelled ‘mawkin’ because that’s how it was pronounced.  It was often used affectionately, but means, ‘idiot, fool, silly person.’  I thought of it as ‘slang’ and never bothered to look it up – but I was flipping through my parents’ dictionary one day, and happened to see it, as the last entry at the bottom of a page: malkin.  It isn’t in my OED Concise, but I remember that the old dictionary gave its definition as ‘simpleton’and said it was derived from Old English.       
...Choose me,
You English words? 
...But though older far
Than oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love. 
Edward Thomas.
          I'm always delighted to learn new dialect words, if you know any!