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Lincolnshire Traditional Sayings and Proverbial Expressions


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J. D. A. Widdowson
From - A Prospect of Lincolnshire - ISBN 0 9509821 0 5

It is fashionable nowadays for folklorists to present analyses of their data without paying much attention to the actual material on which these analyses are based. Consequently there is a dearth of recently collected data on English regional dialects and folklore in published form. In seeking to redress the balance somewhat I should like to survey here some aspects of Lincolnshire oral tradition which continue to flourish and which might suggest avenues for further exploration both now and in the future. By focussing attention on just a few categories of traditional speech it is possible to reveal something of the richness and diversity of language and folklore in the county in this the last quarter of the 20th century.

When studying Lincolnshire folklore we are fortunate in having not only the very substantial work of Mrs Gutch and Mabel Peacock for the late 19th century, (Gutch & Peacock, 1912) but also a rare record of the period between the wars in Mrs Rudkin's highly acclaimed and economical study (Rudkin, 1936). It is therefore possible to chart the continuity and change in usage over the past hundred years or so. Without Mrs Rudkin's careful and accurate observations the task of monitoring these changes would be difficult, if not impossible. Meticulously referenced with place of origin and source of material, the entries in her book provide a unique record of local folklore in the 1930s. Above all, since tradition is mostly transmitted by word of mouth, her close attention to precisely what people said and the way they said it allows us to interpret more recently collected examples of dialect words, sayings, proverbial expressions and rhymes in their historical context. For the dialects we also have an unusually full record from the late 19th century to the present day.

Still firmly rooted in its solid agricultural past, Lincolnshire has maintained old words and ways which in many other parts of England have been swept away by industrialisation and mechanisation. Some of these of course are known elsewhere, but others are peculiar to the county and are essential to its distinctiveness. The examples selected here are drawn from my own fieldwork over a period of some 20 years and from the archives of the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language at the University of Sheffield, items being contributed by numerous individuals from many parts of the county between 1964 and 1983. They reveal not only the vigour and aptness of vernacular speech but also the traditional use of language in social commentary, social control and the passing on of information concerning customs, beliefs and other aspects of our traditional heritage.

As a beginning we might note the strength and variety in the dialects of Lincolnshire, with their wealth of different words for the same concept. A good example is the dozen different forms for donkey listed in the Survey of English Dialects (Orton & Tilling, 1969). One of these, recorded at Swaby, is Jerusalem, corroborated in 1969 from West Butterwick in the more elaborate form Jerusalem nightinggale. The old phrase to year meaning `this year' (cf. today, tomorrow etc.) was recorded from Wainfleet in 1970: `We've killed two pigs to year', and the main day of the Gainsborough annual fair is known as Mart Wednesday, preserving the older word: `It's always been "mart" here. If you said, "I'm going to the fair" they thought you were talkin' posh.' As in most regional dialects of English, double negatives are common, e.g. `I never go nowhere'. Statements are often qualified by but however or but a-sivver (howsoever), the former also common in East Yorkshire. Harvest bugs are called men o'Wroot in the Scunthorpe area while anglers from Sheffield are derisively termed Sheffield maggot chewers from their supposed habit of keeping bait in their mouths! A warp toad is used in the north of the county to describe someone who lived on the low-lying land near the Trent. Moneyed people or gentry were known as better-ma-sort of people at Wainfleet, while in West Butterwick the well-to-do were said to be well britched and a person boasting about his wealth may be talking pound-notish. A two-faced person was called a Wesleyan faced un, a clean-shaven man was wench faced, a person staring open-mouthed in wonderment is gathering gape-seed, a man with a big paunch is said to have a bay window, and an untidy woman is a Sally slapcabbage. If someone was very angry they played Jack's alive (Alkborough), and a woman making a cake might say `I'll just thumb a bit o' cake together' (Wainfleet). A common alliterative phrase to describe fledged birds leaving their nest is that they have fligged and flown, and young boys discovering an empty nest might exclaim: 'Fligged, flown, shitten and gone!' Another onomatopoeic alliterative phrase is yuthering and yetting, meaning to eat noisily and voraciously. When it was necessary to break up clods of earth on `strong land' a mallet or mell was used, and the process was known as 'breckin up owd England.' A picturesque and sinister way of describing lingering patches of snow under hedgerows was to call them dead men's bones and as long as they remained more snow could be expected. Hen scrattings referred to the dappled clouds in a `mackerel sky' and to burn daylight meant to waste candles by lighting them before it was dark If someone coveted something he hung his liver over it, and a common exclamation was laws-a-massy-me! which has parallels such as lawk-a-massy in East Yorkshire.

Dialectal features are of course also apparent in numerous Lincolnshire sayings still extant. Examples include neither nowt n' summat (scarcely worth mention); muck bods are whistlin' or muck bods are oot-a sign of rain, also a comment on poor whistling or singing; muck afore t'shovel - said to someone invited to go first through a door etc.; you've enough clothes on 1'thack a watter mill; and the well-known comment, also used in East Yorkshire, made when someone says the old past participle putten: He's gone and putten 'putten' where he should have putten 'put'. In this second group of set expressions, among many others, the following are typical:
(of a hearty eater) - I'd as leave keep two pigs as 'im. I'd as leave keep him for a week as a fortnight.
(of someone who talks `fine') - He's cut his mouth on a brocken bottle.
(of a lucky person) - If he fell off Burton's, he'd land in a suit!
(of a bad tempered person) - She got up backside first.
(of a cross-eyed person) -One eye in the pot, and the other up the chimney.
(of a casual or unreliable person) - He was come day, go day, God send Sunday.
(of something to be done immediately) - I'll do it before I screw my leg off.
(of someone changing their underwear before going out) - I must make a decent accident.
(of an inquisitive person) - She/he wants to know far end o' Meg/Meg's backside.
(of a self-interested person) - He's gor all his buttons on, but they're all on one side.
(of a man carrying a forty gallon barrel) - By gom, now didn't my feet fit my boots with that on my back.(of a bowlegged man)-He couldn't stop a pig in a passage.
(of a man wearing a stiff, high collar) - His collar was so high he had to stand up to spit.
(of a woman `living it up') - She'll end with her behind on a muck heap.
(of a `Mr. Nobody' who does not admit to his misdemeanours) -It's that fella from 'ull. [Hull] again.
(of someone with a difficult task) - He has a stiff row to hoe.
(of someone wishing he was at home) -I wish I had hold of our cat's tail.
(of someone who becomes enthusiastic as a subject is discussed) -He talks as he warms.
(of stout people with short necks)-Short neck - pop off quick.
(of a blunt knife) -Ride bareback to Paris on it.

(of pearls) - Pearls bring tears.
(of Fridays)-Friday-best o' days, worst o' days.
(of impending rain) - It's looking black over Will's (or Bill's) mother's.
(of a showery day)-It's Jack Hawkins' day-it keeps coming and going. (Sturton).
(of Louth people)-Louth folk are either lame or daft.

Sayings of this kind act as a social commentary on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of individuals and types, drawing attention to them in an often humorous way and neatly encapsulating prevailing attitudes. Some are content merely to comment, whereas others help to mould and influence attitudes, passing on traditional means of appraising human nature and its foibles, always in a graphic and memorable way which ensures their survival. A few of the sayings such as Pearls bring tears bear the hallmarks of proverbial usage, and, like Short neck-pop off quick may also reflect folk beliefs. The final example in this group is typical of blason populaire-the popular sayings which comment pejoratively about other people or places and thereby attempt to enhance the status of the commenting group, in the same way that bad weather in Lincolnshire is said to come from Nottinghamshire - Wind's in Marnham hole/Tuxford hole-or from some other part of Lincolnshire than that where the speaker lives - Wind's in Wrawby hole/Ketton [Kirton] hole.
Although such sayings may influence or control attitudes, a third group of expressions is used much more overtly to control behaviour. They are typical of the interaction between parents and children, especially in early childhood when a great deal more about manners and acceptable behaviour is taught informally at home than we might expect. The `baby talk' so common at this stage is often coloured by regional expressions. Lincolnshire children are told to clean their teggies (teeth), and are encouraged to go to bed by being told to go up the wooden hill, up the stairs to gaddy pash (Kirton Lindsey), h'upstairs for h'overlays and h'overmantles (a family saying from Old Brumby taken from the announcements made by a lift-operator at a Scunthorpe store), and, if the child misbehaved, another saying was used which implied sternness and speed in a more direct and threatening manner: Time you were up the gallopers.
Natural phenomena are explained to very young children in traditional ways which allay fear and promote interest and a sense of wonder. Thunder, for example, is said to be elephants falling out of bed, or the child is told: Listen to the clouds bumping into each other. When it is snowing children are told The old lady is shaking her feather pillows out of her window. (Widdowson, 1980.) Ancient lullabies also persist in living memory as in this delightful example from Winterton sung by the contributor's grandparents some 70 years ago, with its subtly interwoven list of vowels:

B.A. - BAY, B.E. BEE, B.I. BYE with a Bye Bye B.O. BOH with a Bi Boh B.U. BUE with a Bi Boh Bue A.E.I.O.U.

The verse was said to be a most effective way of singing a child to sleep. It progressed through the consonants of the alphabet-D.A. DAY, K.A. KAY etc.-and the singing became softer and softer until almost a whisper.

Good manners are humorously taught in such rhymes as Beg pardon, pig in garden which is said when a young child belches. An inquisitive child is told that Little pigs have big ears, and adults use the same expression to alert each other to the fact that a child is overhearing their conversation when it is not intended for his ears. Table manners are inculcated in such sayings as A handsome husband and a thousand a year, used to encourage a person to take the last piece of bread or cake on a plate - a piece which politeness decrees should not otherwise be taken. If a door is left open, the opener is asked Do you come from Bardney? or Does thee live at Lysaghts? (a steelworks at Scunthorpe). The former of these sayings is backed up by various legends as to why Bardney was said to be bereft of doors, though it is not clear which was the more original, the saying or the legends. It is possible that the legends were devised to explain the saying. Children's questions, especially when persistent, are deflected with a variety of put-offs:
(What's that?) Wimwams/shim shams for meddlers' noses.
Wigwam for a mustard mill.
A whim-wham to wind mustard-mills up with.
Wigwams/Overlays for meddlers. (What's that for?) Just for fancy, to please old Nancy. (Where are you going?) There and back to see how far it is.
I'm going to Bubath [Bubwith] . (What's for dinner/tea etc.?) Duck under and duck oot. Where's my mam?) She's run away with a black man.
(Why won't you play with me?) I've got a bone in my leg.
When a child says `I thought so and so' the adult may respond with: `You know what thought did? He only thought he did.' A teenager, however, may reply 'Ah, but when he looked he had!' -a riposte which has the effect of counteracting the adult's attempt to control behaviour.

The social control of children is most easily effected by traditional threats such as:
Mek a less noise.
I'll clink her lug 'ole. I'll joll your lug.
I'll warm your arse for you. I shall scutch yet backside. Green cab'll come for you.
Go to sleep or the bogey man will come and get you.

Similar put-offs and threats may be heard in many other parts of the country, and they differ mainly in their dialectal features.
Once at school children partake in the traditions of their peer group. The ritual of footing-up, for example, is used, among other means, to pick sides for a game:
'Footing-up' was a ritual carried out before playing any street team game and in the absence of a coin decided which of the tacitly elected 'captains' - strength of personality usually decided this-should have first pick of the children to be on his side. The two captains faced each other about six feet apart, then approached each other a foot at a time alternately, strictly heel to toe. This was watched very carefully as the gap closed, as the last whole foot on the ground had `won the toss'. It often happened that even if someone had a ha'penny and tossed it, this would not be regarded as the proper way of doing things and 'footing-up' would follow. Sometimes, before the 'footing-up' started, one or other of the captains would say `Halves and quarters and none for you' which was like calling heads to a double-headed penny. It always provoked heated argument but never altered the rule that the last whole foot on the ground was the winner of the 'foot-up'.

Verbal forms of choosing sides include such tongue-twisting rhymes as:
Eena, meena, mink, mank,
Plink, plank,
Iza, vooza, vacaditch,
Vee, vi, vo (Scunthorpe)

Hiram, Byram, Bimbo lock,
Three wires in a clock
Witty, Watty, Tiffy, Taffy,
Out goes he/she,
You are IT. (Winterton)

Old trick questions are still remembered, such as:
If a feller met a feller in a feller's field,
Would a feller tell a feller what a feller means?
- How many fs in that?
(Ans. None)

Taunts and teases include:
Our____is a funny 'un Her face is like a pickled onion
Her nose is like a squashed tomato
Her legs like two pins. (Grimsby)

Clean and paid for
Washed and cared for
Made into dusters when they are done for. (Scunthorpe)

Clean and paid for
Washed and cared for
If you don't like it/them
What do you stare for?
(said by a child wearing something new to another who was paying too much attention)

While the celebrations and holidays usual on certain days of the year are less common than formerly, the old rhymes still linger in the memory:
It's Royal Oak Day/Pancake Day, Pancake Day
If you don't give us a holiday
We'll all run away.

However, April fool rhymes continue with their old vigour:
April fools day passed and gone
And you're the fool for making one.

- although it is unlikely that the tricks would include one remembered from her childhood by a lady from Louth:
We always got a small piece of coal wrapped in a toffee paper in our lunch. Believe me, we should have been very disappointed if it had not been there!

In recent years children's traditional language has of course continued to adapt itself to changing conditions, and a useful field of vocabulary in which to observe such changes is in words and expressions for food. Among many such items the term murder on the Alps given by children to ground rice pudding with rose hip syrup in school dinners shows that they have lost none of their humour and inventtiveness! Modern diet even extends to elimination rhymes: "Apeth of chips to grease your lips, out goes she.' The verbal traditions of children are all too often ignored by both linguists and folklorists, but recently collected material from Lincolnshire amply demonstrates the richness of local usage and invites further exploration.

Turning now to a fourth category of traditional spoken lore, it is evident that Lincolnshire shares with other English counties an extensive repertory of sayings which embody old customs and beliefs. Although many of these customs and beliefs have fallen into disuse, they are retained in oral tradition and in some cases have a greater significance than might appear on the surface. The quoting of such expressions may still have practical value, as for instance those which comment on the weather:

Red sky at night,
Shepherd's delight.
Red in the morning,
Sailors take warning
(and variants; note that in a county which has both an agricultural and a maritime economy, the two aspects are typically reflected in the shift from shepherds to sailors in local versions of the rhyme.)
Evening red and morning grey Promises a very fine day - Evening grey and morning red Sends the shepherd wet to bed. (Kirton Lindsey)

(Candlemas Day):
If the cat can sit in the sun,
There's half the winter to come. (Scotter)

Ice in November to bear a duck
And you get a winter of sludge and muck. (Messingham)

If oak is out before the ash, There's sure to be nowt but a splash.
If ash is out before the oak, There's sure to be a regular soak.

Also of practical value are sayings and rhymes concerning traditional medicine, such as the repetition of Nettle come out, grass go in when rubbing a nettle sting with grass.

Calendar customs often involved the saying of a rhyme as in the New Year custom in Gainsborough when children knocked at the doors of houses and said: I've brought you a piece o' wood And I hope it will do you good. They were given a few coppers in return and the piece of wood was not burned but kept for a year.

Similarly, customs and beliefs about food are remembered in such rhymes as: Apple pie without the cheese Is like a kiss without a squeeze.
Rivalry between towns and/or villages is sustained in numerous forms of blason populaire, often occurring in rhymed form, in which one village comes off worst, e.g.: Haxey for ringing, Epworth for singing, Belton for old tin cans.
Boston, Boston, thou hast naught to boast on, But a grand sluice, a high steeple, A proud, conceited, ignorant people, and a coast that souls are lost on.
The numerous references in present-day oral tradition to traditional beliefs suggest that such superstitions are remarkably tenacious, even in this age of science and technology. Using certain sayings about these beliefs does not, of course, necessarily imply that the speaker actually believes. He or she may simply be adverting to common knowledge, or merely commenting on a situation. Nevertheless, sayings of this kind are well attested in Lincolnshire, as elsewhere, e.g.:
a) Luck.
See a pin, pick it up,
All the day you'll have good luck.
See a pin, let it lie,
Then your luck will surely die. (Frodingham)

White horse, white horse, bring me good luck, cross your fingers till you see a dog.
The child's fingers are then crossed until he/she sees a dog,
whereupon he/she says:
Good luck to you. Good luck to me. Good luck to every white horse I see.
A variant from Grimsby ends with: Then good luck will pass you by.

b) Dreams.
Friday night's dream, Saturday told, Sure to come true be it never so old.

c) Marriage.
Change the name and not the letter, Change for worse and not for better.

Marry in May
And you'll rue the day. (Kirton Lindsey)

d) Days for getting married.
Monday for health
Tuesday for wealth
Wednesday best day of all;
Thursday for losses
Friday for crosses
Saturday no day at all. (Grimsby) This latter rhyme certainly offers no encouragement to the now dominant practice of marrying on a Saturday!

e) Death.
A green Christmas means a fat churchyard. (Winterton)

Oppen for a she
-Oppen for three.
(Commonly said in North Lincolnshire when a grave was dug for a female person. It was taken to portend two further deaths in the district. The contributor adds: `The wistful manner in which it was said had an ominous ring about it, and people fully expected it to be true, almost to a point of fearfulness!)

Such expressions of belief are often transmitted in a set form which endows them with something of the forcefulness and authority of proverbs. And it is to proverbial usage that we should turn for our fifth and final category in order to discover the vigour and continued relevance of oral tradition, rooted deeply in the past but still very much alive and retaining a strong cutting edge despite recent claims to the contrary (Simpson, 1982). Fortunately, there is ample evidence for the wealth of proverbial expressions in Lincolnshire today. Their trenchancy, inventiveness and humour reinforce their worldly wisdom and commonsense, passing on their wittily expressed experiential knowledge to the younger generation. Some are well known elsewhere in the country, while others are more localised in their language and application. From them one might select a representative number to illustrate their range and brilliance:
Accidents are never far to seek.
(very commonly used in the north west of the county when anyone hears of an accident.)
When the age of forty come,
Man goes to belly and woman to bum!
(West Butterwick) (I'll marry ya) when hods has two tails.
(although suggesting `never' this expression may also refer to the appearance of swallows. i.e. springtime.)
Chansh [chance] is a fine thing.
I've heard of hens scratching for the chicks, but I've niver known the chicks scratch for th'owd hen. (Thorpe St Peter)
There's only one set of hoses that runs for t'public and them's Smith and Warren's. (Owston Ferry) (said ruefully by a habitual racegoer when he backed a losing horse. Smith and Warren owned a set of steam horses which visited local fairs around the turn of the century.)
Never lose your temper, it's worth more to you than it is to anyone else. (Scunthorpe) You can match all sorts of cloth but fustian -it's got to match, its sen. (West Butterwick)
(used in 1969 by a lady in her seventies when discussing an unmarried man in his fifties who had never shown interest in the opposite sex.)
Good pastry greases its own bottom. (Lincoln) (used literally - there is no need to grease the tin in which pastry is cooked if the pastry is good. The implication is that anyone who needed to grease the pastry tin was not a good pastry maker.)
Poison goes in a small compass. (expressing dislike and mistrust of a small and apparently innocuous person.)
Proverbial comparisons appear to be much more frequently used than proverbs proper. Examples include:
as black as Owd Nick's nutting bag.
as daft as a door nail.
as fast as a chech [church]. (i.e. immovable-in common use with reference to many items, from a stubborn tree root to a tight nut and bolt.)
as fresh as paint. (i.e. new, raw, inexperienced)
as lazy as Ludlam's dog that leaned his head up against a doorpost to bark. (and variants, e.g....that lay down to bark)
as lively as a stone pig trough. (said of a fat lethargic labourer in an engineering works.)
lousy as a coot.
as soft as a bladder of lard.
as stubborn as a mill-post.
as thick as thatch. (said, for example, of a couple who were carrying on an illicit affair.)
as thin as a bit o' strainin'. (generally applied to poor-quality fabric or woven material, strainin' and its variant strainerin' being butter muslin.)
as tiff [tough] as wick-leather. (said, for example, of the difficulty of ploughing heavy land.)
as throng as Throp's wife. (commonly applied to a busy person in both Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, other variants having the additional clause that hanged hersen in the dishclout, which is amplified by the legend remembered in 1970 by a Gainsborough man in his sixties who heard it from his Yorkshire mother: 'Throp's wife was always busy and she hadn't enough time to get all the work done. She was caught out working after midnight on a Saturday (i.e. early on Sunday morning) - and the Devil comes into the story somewhere. She'd sold her soul to the Devil, and was working on a Sunday!
as tight as a fish's arsehole and that's watertight. (said of a mean, tightfisted person.)
as watertight as a duck's arse. (said in the 1920s by a North Somercotes cobbler who had just repaired a pair of thigh-length boots used by a man who was clearing dykes.)
as white as if he'd had his head in a bag o' dumplin' dust [flour] .
wick as an eel. (i.e. alert, lively, quick, sharp.)
(a face) like a brass pancheon. (West Butterwick) (said of a cheeky or brazen-faced person.)
(He looks) like a forty acre farmer. (Laughton) (said of someone who has a prominent paunch.)
(To stink) like a fummard [polecat]. (Thorpe St Peter)
(also recently well attested in Nottinghamshire.)
(I'm all of a lillilow) like a 'ot egg pie. (Nettleton) (i.e. flustered. This interesting use of lillilow contrasts markedly with the Yorkshire sense of `a glimmering light'.)
(It shines) like our petty [lavatory] door on a frosty morning. (Nettleton) (said, for example, of a child's freshly-washed face.)
like a toad in writing paper. (Scawby; Scunthorpe) (the Scawby example refers to a boy wearing stiff, new Sunday clothes, and the Scunthorpe one to an elderly woman who went out dressed in old fashioned finery.)
(Tha's got eyes) like a Trent eel. (West Butterwick) (said, for instance, of the very good eyesight of a snooker player.)
like a Willie biter [blue titmouse] tilting at a leg o' mutton. (Grainthorpe) (said of someone trying to do something but making no progress.)
Last, but not least, the elusive Tom Pepper, like Ludlam and Throp, retains his immortality in He's a bigger liar than Tom Pepper
-a proverbial comparison also still frequently heard in Yorkshire.

In presenting this small selection of recently collected material it is hoped that those interested in Lincolnshire language and folklore, whether individuals or groups, will be reawakened to the richness and importance of the region's heritage. Traditional material of this kind is to be found all around us every day, yet comparatively little finds its way into print or into local repositories such as archives, libraries and museums.



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