A Rose By Any Other Name: ‘Cobs’ and ‘Jitties’, ‘Barms’ and ‘Ginnels’
Tuesday, 5 December 2023
Why do we have so many words for so many things? Local words and accents are important for identity, and the strange little aspects of our language are all evidence of the development of language in a local area.
Anyone who isn’t native to the East Midlands may receive a culture shock when arriving in Nottingham, due to the plethora of local terms in use here. You may be greeted as ‘duck’, offered a bacon ‘cob’, or directed down a ‘jitty’ to your destination. As a lifelong resident of the Midlands, and someone influenced by language patterns from the Black Country (from my father), North Staffordshire and the Potteries (from my childhood), and the Derbyshire Dales (from my mother), I don’t find these words so strange. But, to someone coming from outside of the region, they may be somewhat unintelligible.
Calling a person ‘duck’ is a phenomenon seen across the Midlands, in counties that were a part of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. This is potentially a linguistic overhang from a term of respect used in the Anglo-Norse language of this area (‘ducas’). Having moved further and further east over the course of my life, I’ve noticed that the word does not change across the region, only the inflection and accent accompanying it. It is genderless and forms a part of the cultural identity of the places in which it is used.
However, having a specific word for a bread roll or an alleyway is not a localised phenomenon. Here, in the East Midlands, a bread roll is commonly called a cob. This is sometimes confusing for non-locals, as in other parts of the UK, this word refers to a large round loaf. Though, as you venture further north toward Manchester it will become a ‘barm’. In fact, there are at least seven different words for this around the UK. In a sense, these are mainstream usages of various dialects from days gone by that would have been in common use and would differ from town to town.
Indeed, the small market town of Wirksworth in Derbyshire has an accent and set of words that are completely distinct; to residents of the Derbyshire dales, a Wirksworth resident would be easy to identify. While these words are similar to those used in the surrounding area, when used in combination with each other and with specific vowel sounds, they form a marker of an origin that belongs to a cultural identity or settlement. Equally, the six towns that were united to form the city of Stoke-on-Trent each have a specific set of words, vowel sounds, and accent markers that indicate a resident as coming from that specific part of the city.
These types of linguistic intricacies exist across all forms of language. They are evidence of the development of local language, as well as showing that, populations settling and remaining in an area gives rise to dialects and accents attached to its location. Every time the population of the area shifts, language and dialects shift with it. Despite this, the enduring nature of these dialects indicate the presence of a permanent and unmoving population.
Due to the transient nature of modern life and the way in which we move to and from these small communes, many of these small accents, dialects, and overhangs of the past are disappearing slowly. Therefore, using words such as ‘cob’ and ‘jitty’ becomes a badge of local identity and belonging. They become a commonality and a shared history that is maintained through speech; and they are culturally important in order to maintain societal links that are quickly becoming disparate.