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Q From Alex Wade: My dad has a word I’ve often wondered about: cag-mag for cheap sugary foods (he also uses it for my mum’s baking!).

A Cheeky devil. If I were your mum, I’d give him a belt round the ear.

Cagmag is an intriguing item of British regional dialect that starts to be recorded in the eighteenth century. It has had several senses, all of them disparaging. The oldest references are to geese:

Vast numbers are driven annually to London, to supply the markets; among them all the superannuated geese and ganders (called here Cagmags) which serve to fatigue the jaws of the good Citizens, who are so unfortunate as to meet with them.

A Tour in Scotland, by Thomas Pennant, 1772. Despite the title, Pennant is referring to Lincolnshire.

A century later, the English Dialect Dictionary lists a number of meanings, starting with this one and moving on to tough, inferior meat or carrion; unwholesome or bad food; worthless items; inferior or spurious things; an animal that is coarse or mongrel bred; and “a term of opprobrium applied to persons”, typically an old woman. Correspondents have told me that elderly relatives have also used it for cheap sugary foods, including sweets and shop-bought cakes, so your father’s sense is certainly known.

It was widely used in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and other counties, but nobody has the slightest idea where it is from. In his Slang Dictionary in 1864, John Camden Hotten notes a suggestion from a correspondent at Trinity College, Dublin, that the word was a corruption of the Greek kakos mageiros, a bad cook, a learned slang term once known in university circles. Nobody now believes this, but there’s nothing to put in its place.

It’s still around in Lincolnshire and also in Nottinghamshire, the Birmingham area and the Black Country (where in 2003 it was said to mean a gossipy old woman). I’ve also found references in Australian English.

Although she was poor, my mother wouldn’t buy the cheap meat she called “cag mag”.

Birmingham Evening Mail, 7 Dec. 2002.

The late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn escaped rebuke, but not disdain, by describing women MPs as “mostly hideous — they have no fragrance and I dislike women who deny their femininity. They are just cagmags, scrub heaps, old tattles”.

BBC News, 8 Dec. 2005.

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