Something this week on some old Devon phrases and origins - it comes from a wider essay on the nature of Brythonic animal call words - so don't be surprised if a few parts of the last paragraph or so don't make much sense - they are referencing earlier, un-seen writing. This stuff is a developed stream in the Bird-Spirit-King book (2014)- this is just the tiniest taster.
Both school of myth autumnn weekends - 'Prophet' and 'Mythteller' are filled to capacity - but both have waiting lists if you would like to get your name in the hat.
Broken courts and dark streams
Devon is filled with combes; Widdicombe, Babbacombe, Combe Martin, Staddiscombe are just a few. Combe has the same Celtic root as the Welsh ‘cwm’, and Cornish ‘cum’, meaning ‘valley’. As we can see, it is more often than not tagged onto other words to flesh out the description.
A few Celtic place names include: Breazle (meaning broken court), Carley (fort place), Crowdy Mill (pig sty), Dawlish (dark stream), Gaverick (goat like), Duvale Barton (dark peak), Cruwys Morchard (great wood), Poltimore (pool by the large house), Whimple (white pool), Hemyock (summer like). When we factor in the number of churches named after Celtic saints: St Urith, St Brannock, St Budoc, St Necton, St Petroc and on, we realise that the Saxon influence is nothing like as severe in the west as in the midlands and east.
The local dialect still carries Celtic traces and it is also there that we find a greater Anglo-Saxon route to all sorts of phrases. Just a few riches are:
Axwaddler – a peddler of ash, one who collected ash to use when strained with water as “lie”, a way of washing clothes before the common use of soap.
Baastins – the first milk when a calf is born, extremely rich and very desirable to local folk.
Blimmer – a mild swear word.
Champeen – a champion.
Cryin the Neck – ancient pagan ceremony on completion of the harvest; a “neck of straw” was twisted and kept safe, talismanically, till the next harvest.
Kerping – finding fault.
Musicker – musician.
Gaw Sparkin – to go courting.
Tacker – a small boy.
Among the people
I heard some of this language growing up in the 1970s, trailing around with my father as he first cut his teeth as a local Devon preacher. This was still a time of the heavy horses – the gypsy cobs, the clydesdale, the percheron, that would sometimes block the tiny lanes we queasily drove along. There were still horse fairs, red beer, young men and women getting sunburnt romping on the hay bales. I would peer out at them from the back window on the way to some remote chapel and wonder.
My father Robert had been a boy who lost his father young, and grew up in a house of middle-aged women. Their composite of the ideal man was a mixture of Noel Coward and David Niven. Butch. Whilst getting to know my mother as a young man, he started to attend her local church. Possibly under threat, he, of a sudden, received the impact of older men speaking with eloquence and tremendous authority over matters of the soul. I think he is still recovering. Preachers like the Scottish baptist Peter Barber taught, not just by theological knowledge, not just by oral dexterity, but by the slow labour of how they crafted their day-to-day lives.
We would borrow my grandparents' car and take to the lanes, occasionally stopping due to the nausea invoked by the twists and high hedges. We would arrive at the church, often methodist, and be greeted by some positively ancient keeper of the keys. There would be a gas bottle fire spluttering in the corner, trying to persuade the damp to briefly vacate the premises. After a while, maybe 10 to 15 folks would shuffle in and settle in the hard wooden rows. Some smiling benignly at the young man with the long hair and the bible, others less so. These were often straight forward farming folk, or retired teachers, all had been working people with faces marked deep with joy and loss.
As Clement Marten points out in his study of the Devonshire dialect, much of the county is ‘chapel’ – meaning Wesleyan or methodist. They show up in the wildest, shaggiest, most remote of locations. The “laukel praicher” or “methody praicher” was a subject of keen interest.
As should be clear, these weren’t the super-churches of the American mid-west, or with developed out-reach programmes for bringing in new converts. These were rural community gatherings, and to the outside eye, would have seemed to be in decline. Dad’s style was pretty straight line evangelical, not much metaphor, but theologically sound and always engaging. And why engaging? Because he was a natural storyteller and never made a scholarly point without warming its embers with an anecdote. I’ve never seen him use smoke and mirrors – he always works hard to be understood. So, when people ask me who or what influenced me as a storyteller, this scene holds many clues.
A major factor is the willingness to turn up and do the work, regardless of size or pay. My father has dreams just like anyone else, but he tries not to let those dreams drip like a poison into the sanctity of his vocation. Only four years ago, I drove him out to yet another rural methodist congregation amongst the cabbage fields of Lincolnshire. Thirty years on, we parked up, were greeted by yet another beaming geriatric and let into the church. Look, there’s our friend the heater, spluttering away, and the tea and coffee, perched ready for after the hymns. Maybe 12 showed up.
With a smile, he began a sermon that he may have rehearsed a couple of hundred times. Relaxed, self deprecating, and always with an ear to the arrival of the holy, he did good service to his god and all the preachers who stood in the pulpit at Upton Vale Baptist Church four decades ago. As they pressed the pay into his hand, possibly enough for gas money, I was proud to be his boy. A local rural audience is hard to impress. They have buried loved ones with their own hands, been diminished by recession, witnessed their world change almost utterly over the decades. Dainty illusions to metaphor and ambiguous religious leanings would have caught short shrift in their eyes.
And there they sit; some of them still using the very animal call words used in the middle east three thousand years ago, others biding their sheep with yan, tan, tethera, others still with memories loaded with the old Dartmoor stories. I remember strange fitting suits, hearing aids, very brown skin, small eyes, blinking occasionally. Some would be the great, great grand daughters of cunning men, and others sons of the right and proper women of chapel. A flank of Devon history gazed levelly on him most Sundays. He must have been pretty good, he survived.
copyright Martin Shaw 2012