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Emmet and grockle

Pronounced /ˈɛmɪt/, /ˈɡrɒk(ə)l/Help with pronunciation

The word emmet actually means an ant. However, if you’re a resident of the county of Cornwall it’s an excellent term to describe the hordes of tourists that descend on your locality to enjoy the summer weather, beaches and countryside, in the process clogging the narrow local roads and generally getting in the way of everyday life.

In some ways my recent trip to Cornwall was a kind of therapy, because you can’t roll up at some beauty spot in the heart of Kernow at the height of summer and pretend to be anything other than an emmet — the charming interchangeable Cornish word for “ant” and “tourist”.

Western Daily Press, 13 Oct. 2007. Kernow is the Cornish name of Cornwall.

It comes from the Old English aemette, which developed one way into our standard English ant, another into emmet, which survived as a dialect word. The dictionaries first record it in the tourism sense from the mid 1970s, but I remember it being used some years earlier as an already well-established term.

Because of its Cornish language origin, it’s used mainly in Cornwall; if you cross the River Tamar into Devon you will instead hear grockle, an equally odd word that is now widely known in other tourist areas.

Bar a few open-garden events, the Cowdrays have never allowed visitor access to the property, so the eventual buyer won’t have to endure grockles coming up the drive.

The Sunday Times, 1 Aug. 2010. Lord Cowdray’s property is in West Sussex, next to Cowdray Park, the home of polo.

One theory is that this had its origin in the name of the famous Swiss clown, Grock, who was well known in Britain in the 1950s. A resident of Torquay, the biggest resort on the south Devon coast, was said once to have remarked that visitors resembled grockles, little Grocks, because of their boorishness and clownish behaviour. This is now not thought to be the origin.

Research by the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word wasn’t generally known before it was popularised in the film The System in 1962. However, the local columnist Brian Carter wrote in The Herald Express of Torquay in May 1993 that he remembered hearing grockle for the first time in the late 1950s when working on the promenade at Goodrington, a little way along the coast.

Jerome Betts wrote an article about its origins in Verbatim in 1996. He suggested that it had been the creation of Arthur Rivers, who in the 1950s ran the boating-lake at Goodrington. He got the term from a strip cartoon in the children’s comic The Dandy, entitled Jimmy and his Grockle. (The grockle was a magical dragon-like creature and grockle was the only noise he made, which suggests that the name was an echoic invention of the strip’s author.) Mr Rivers’s assistant, Freddie Fly, later became a barman in Torquay, where he met Peter Draper, the scriptwriter for The System, who grabbed the term to add a bit of local colour.

Though admittedly anecdotal, this origin seems pretty definitive.

Numerous compounds of similar deprecatory intent have appeared since, including grockledom, grockle coops (hotels) and grockle-bait (tacky souvenirs). These three, with some others, first appeared in 1966, in Osborne’s Army by the American writer John Anthony West. He was a former Manhattan copywriter turned astrologer, a member of the beat generation. West says in the book that it had been “written over six years on Ibiza” and he probably picked up grockle from English tourists visiting the island.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 3 Jun. 2000
Last updated 6 Nov. 2010

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-emm1.htm
Last modified: 6 November 2010.