Q From Chris Sheldon: I have been reading a book on Devon customs published in 1900 with the odd title of Nummits and Crummits. Even after reading this I still don’t know what these words mean!
A Yes, it’s a nuisance that Sarah Hewett doesn’t define these two crucial words in her book, though she gives hints. She writes in the introduction, “Apologies are offered to any one whose Crummits have been appropriated without permission or acknowledgment” and in the chapter headed Nummits and Crummits she quotes an old Devon verse about mealtimes:
A wee-bit and breakfast,
A stay-bit and dinner,
A nummit and a crummit,
And a bit arter supper.
The place to get the answers is the English Dialect Dictionary, a huge compilation in six volumes published between 1898 and 1905. It was based on submissions by a large number of local dialect field workers, of whom Mrs Hewett was one.
The EDD defines crummit as a small bit or a crumb. A nummit is a meal eaten in the field by farm labourers, either in the middle of the morning or in the afternoon, at nummit-time. The phrase nummit and crummit meant a snack, a bit of something taken between meals. You might translate the title of Mrs Hewett’s book as “bits and pieces” or “miscellany”.
As to the other words in the rhyme: a wee-bit is a snack taken early in the morning before the regular breakfast; stay-bit means likewise a snack, something to stay your hunger before a main meal. Arter is a local form of after. If you take the bit after supper to be another snack, the rhyme lists three main meals a day plus five snacks. We might assume Devon agricultural labourers were notably well-fed, but a description in a little book of sketches of Devon life shows that the verse particularly applied to one type of work (note the different version of the rhyme):
“Haymakers are the hungriest folks out — ‘Fore-bit and Breakfast, Rear-bit and Dinner; Nummit and Crummit, And a Bit after Supper’ — that’s what they had when my mother was a maid, and that’s what they want to-day and for ever.” ... Perhaps, if Aunt Charity were alive now, she would lament for the good old times when haymakers expected their eight meals a day, and earned them.
Devonshire Idyls, by Miss H C O’Neill, 1892.
Nummit is widely known in English dialect and has other many other spellings. The Oxford English Dictionary has it under that spelling and says it’s a variant of noonmeat. It would seem that mealtimes and their names have changed somewhat since noonmeat was current (it died out in the eighteenth century). Nobody seems to know the origin of crummit but it might be from crumb.