TRADITIONAL SAYINGS AND PROVERBIAL EXPRESSIONS
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
(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
(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
(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
(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
(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
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
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
'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,
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?
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
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,
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
Sends the shepherd wet to bed. (Kirton Lindsey)
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.
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
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
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
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.
Friday night's dream, Saturday told, Sure to come true be it never so old.
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!
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
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
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
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
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 wattertight. (said of a mean,
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
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
(He looks) like a forty acre farmer. (Laughton) (said of someone who has a
(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
(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
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.