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Balderdash and flummery

If I get up from my office desk and walk across the room I can see in the distance the twin towers of the Severn Bridge spanning the Bristol Channel and behind them the first grey-green tracings of the landscape of Wales. As I’ve explained elsewhere, Wales is one of the four kingdoms of the United Kingdom. It was the first to be joined with England, officially by Acts of Union in 1536 and 1543, though it had been a principality in rather a messy sort of way since 1284.

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and conquered England after the Roman left had no love for the Celtic people already occupying southern Britain and eventually overwhelmed them, except in certain distant western parts where communications were difficult, where there was little of value and where resistance was particularly fierce. So Wales, along with Cornwall, survived with its customs and language largely intact. The word Welsh is actually an Old English word meaning “foreigner; slave” and at first was applied by the Anglo-Saxons to all the native peoples of Britain. As you might guess, the word Welsh is not used by the Welsh: they call their language Cymraeg, their country Cymru and themselves Cymry. Another form of the Anglo-Saxon word was Welch, which now survives only in the name of the regiment The Royal Welch Fusiliers; another variant has become the surname Walsh.

For most of the period since 1536 the language has been a casualty of the association with England. There was immense pressure on talented and ambitious young people to learn the dominant language of the island. Welsh was disregarded, though still commonly spoken. Although there was a substantial resurgence in the eighteenth century through the influence of Methodism, by the end of last century only a slight majority of Welsh people claimed to be able to speak Welsh. This figure went into steep decline this century with two great waves of collapse in the early 1900s and the 1960s. By about 1981, it had stabilised at around 15 per cent of the population but has slowly risen since. Very few people are now monolingual Welsh speakers, though I have met one or two in rural areas in central and northern Wales.

Much of this recent loss was self-inflicted. Professor Gwyn Williams, the Marxist Welsh historian, said in his book When Was Wales?:

Many of the school-teachers in the new schools practised cultural genocide; the Welsh Not slung around a child’s neck to accompany his or her punishment for speaking his or her own language has become notorious. It was not very effective but it enormously reinforced the image of Welsh as an inferior and gutter language. More generally, the language suffered from its lack of social prestige; a “kitchen language”, many of its practices merely oral at the popular level, it was treated with scorn and, with the advance of English education, with vilification.

Though much has been done since the 1960s by activist bodies such as the Welsh Language Society to improve knowledge of Welsh, and the Welsh Language Act of 1967 made Wales officially bilingual, Welsh is by no means secure within its own country. However, the old scorn has largely gone and there is now no social stigma to speaking Welsh; there is a bilingual television channel, road signs are in both languages, and official business can be carried out in Welsh as well as English. There are indeed many places where you can still hear Welsh spoken daily, particularly in rural west, central and northern Wales, one of its heartlands being the western outliers of Snowdon down to Bangor and on to Anglesey. I can remember making a report to the local council in Bangor a few years ago about a study we had conducted. The proceedings were entirely in Welsh, with simultaneous translation to aid people like me who can hardly say “good morning” in the language (bore da). But even with formal help and encouragement, now amplified by the European Union’s support for what it politely calls “Less Favoured Languages”, the cultural pressure of British (and American) English is huge.

One effect of the historic “kitchen language” status of Welsh is the few words it has contributed to English. After all, we have been cheek-by-jowl with large numbers of Welsh speakers for more than a millennium, and you would expect something to have rubbed off. But cultural imperialism is a very powerful force — the linguistic influences have nearly all been the other way. I can find only a double handful of words in common use in English that have undoubted Welsh roots. Several even of these refer to institutions peculiarly Welsh: an eisteddfod is now loosely taken to mean a cultural festival celebrating Welsh language and literature, but its original meaning was a session or “sitting”. A related word, gorsedd, means a meeting of Welsh bards and druids (though the word originally meant a throne). It has also been revived in Cornwall as the name for an equivalent assembly there as part of the rediscovery of Cornish, which died out in the eighteenth century.

The word bard means in this context poets whose talent has been recognised at an eisteddfod, but this is almost a trivialisation of a function of great antiquity. Bards endured an arduous and long apprenticeship in the strict metres of Welsh poetry; their function, as with most pre-literate or partly-literate societies, was to be its remembrancers, its legitimisers and its moralists. The word is widespread in Celtic languages and seems first to have come into English via Scots Gaelic rather than Welsh, but the word bardd has long existed in Welsh with the same meaning. While we’re on the arts, the crowd is a primitive violin, now obsolete, whose origin is the Welsh crwth, which also meant “swelling; pregnant” from the shape of the instrument. Some English people are familiar with that peculiarly Welsh communal emotional mood identified by the name hwyl.

Pendragon, as in Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, meant a chief leader in war, from pen, “head”, and “dragon”, the dragon symbol or standard (this is an English word, deriving originally from the Greek drakon, “snake; serpent”, and not Welsh at all, despite the close identification of the dragon with Wales). And Arthur’s magic sword Excalibur is said to derive from either Caliburn or Caladbolg, a famous sword in Irish legend, or just possibly from the Welsh Caledvwlch, which was used for a magic sword in the famous set of Welsh stories called the Mabinogion, first written down in the eleventh century, but certainly older. Such stories, by the way, were not told by bards but by a slightly inferior caste of storytellers called the cyfarwyddion.

The term cromlech “crooked stone” refers to a prehistoric structure built of a capstone across a number of standing stones and this is pretty certainly Welsh in origin, as is cist, a related type of burial chamber, sometimes known more fully as a kistvaen from the Welsh words cist, “chest; casket” and faen (pronounced “vine”), a mutated form of the word meaning stone. There is a word cwm, famous in Scrabble circles, which is a bowl-like hollow formed by glacial action at the top of a valley. Crag is derived from Celtic roots, but there is doubt about whether it came from Welsh or Scots Gaelic, or even from Irish. In the river valleys Welsh fishermen used coracles until quite recently (there were coracle users on the River Severn until the 1930s). A coracle is a boat shaped like half a walnut shell made of woven withy branches covered in rawhide; it was light enough to be carried on a man’s back, which advantage offset to some extent the considerable skill needed to paddle a circular boat.

Her Majesty’s corgis are entirely Welsh in name if not in breeding, as the word comes from the Welsh phrase meaning “dwarf dog”. A wrasse is a sea fish found around the British coasts; the English name may have come from Cornish rather than Welsh. Horses said to be piebald (black streaked with white) or skewbald (brown with white streaks) may derive their second element from the Welsh expression ceffyl bàl, “a horse with a white streak (on its face)”. No-one knows for certain, but that wonderful word balderdash for “rubbish; nonsense; senseless words” may derive from the Welsh word baldorddu; certainly flummery, originally a sort of sweet food made with eggs, flour and milk but now usually having the meaning “nonsense; humbug; idle flattery”, comes from the Welsh llymru.

However, I’m pretty sure that the most commonly encountered Welsh word in English is penguin (there’s that word pen again; its second half comes from the Welsh gwyn meaning “white”). The peculiar thing is that penguins do not have white heads. The story is somewhat confused, but it may be that the word was first applied to the Great Auk, a flightless seabird now extinct which, like the penguin, used its wings to swim underwater. It was once common around Newfoundland, Iceland and off-shore north Atlantic rocky islands but the last one was killed in 1844. When English sailors travelled to the South Seas for the first time in the late sixteenth century (one account suggests it was on Drake’s circumnavigation of the world in 1578), they saw birds that to their untutored gaze reminded them of the Great Auk though, zoologically considered, they are quite different. The even odder thing is that the Great Auk didn’t have a white head either, but it did have a white patch between the bill and the eye and this must have made it very visible.

Apart from these words I draw a blank, although there is a small number of Welsh expressions which have become widely known in English, though never naturalised and always used deliberately to evoke Welshness, often derisively or patronisingly: yachy da is an Anglicisation of iechyd da, a toast meaning “good health”; bach and del are known as expressions of affection. The term boyo is a variant of the English word boy, used in Welsh English to address someone (by no means necessarily young), frequently with negative associations; it came into the news a little while ago when Neil Kinnock, a South Walian and former leader of the Labour Party, complained bitterly at being caricatured as a stage Welshman and said he’d never used the word “boyo” in his life. An old Welsh railway porter I used to meet on the station platform every day when I was going to school taught a few of us mochyn budr (“dirty pig”) as a useful all-purpose insult; a corrupted version of the first word (meaning “pig”: Welsh puts its adjectives after its nouns), often spelt and pronounced moochin, is a Welsh English term of reproach. Dylan Thomas used it in Under Milk Wood:

Saw him in the bushes ... Playing mwchins ... Send him to bed without any supper.

There is certainly a distinctive form of Welsh English (how Professor Williams hated that term, holding that it was a political distinction rather than a linguistic one), which outsiders like me rarely hear, because people usually slip into standard English when they know you’re not Welsh, except in some parts of North Wales, when they deliberately swap back into Welsh to emphasise that you are a foreigner and to exclude you. Some words are shared with English dialects: askel for “newt”, dap, “bounce”, pilm, “dust”, sally for “willow” (which I note the OED marks as an Australianism, though it must surely have been taken there by an English dialect speaker and is anyway just a variant form of sallow), and steam for “bread bin”. Others are native Welsh words which have moved across into Welsh English: carreg for “stone”, glaster, a drink of milk and water, clennig, a gift of money.

Use of the word Welsh itself as a phrase former is limited. Welsh rabbit is basically cheese on toast (the word is not “rarebit” by the way, that’s the result of false etymology; “rabbit” is here being used in the same way as “turtle” in “mock-turtle soup”, which has never been near a turtle, or “duck” in “Bombay duck”, which was actually a dried fish called bummalo). A Welsh dresser is regarded as very typical of rural Wales, but is really a survival of the medieval board of the grander sort of English home, once used to pridefully display examples of ceramics and pottery, but in Wales banished to the farm and cottage kitchen as a utilitarian storage item. The Welsh terrier is a rough-coated animal with droopy ears, originally bred in Wales to catch rats, mice and other vermin. A now obsolete expression Welsh bait means to give a horse a short rest at the top of a steep hill; bait here is used figuratively, but is related to the once-common sense of “food taken to be eaten at a break in work or on a journey” which still turns up in Cornwall (Cornish pasties were the archetypical local bait there).

As a verb, to welsh on someone is to swindle him or her out of money, originally and strictly by a bookie at a racecourse decamping with the money laid as bets without paying out any winnings; such a person is a welsher. You will appreciate that it is a verb you must expunge from your vocabulary whenever you cross the border into Wales.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Nov. 1996

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 November 1996.