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Lilly-low

A reader asked about a term she remembers as lilly-lo, which her late grandmother in Yorkshire used for a child’s nursery light, or any light if she was talking to a baby or small child.

The English Dialect Dictionary, published between 1898 and 1905, has it in that spelling and also as lilly-low and lillilo, confirming that it was then used throughout northern England and Scotland.

It can have several meanings, such as any bright light from a flame, or the blaze of a brightly burning domestic fire or bonfire. This is one explanation of its second element from a history of Yorkshire towns:

Low means something astonishingly different in Yorkshire, it refers to a red glow, to a bright flame, to a lurid glare, and one of the most common customs of mothers and nurses is to teach the babes in their arms to exult at the sight of the lilly low.

Miscellaneous History, by Edward Parsons, 1834.

A writer named Henry John Whitling wrote nostalgically from Germany in 1845 about “the bright and happy lilly low of an English fire-side”. C Clough Robinson recorded in his study of the dialect of Leeds and its neighbourhood, “An infant is amused by pieces of paper being thrown into the fire, when a lilly-low, or blaze, is the consequence.” There’s also an old northern English riddling nursery rhyme: “Lilly low, lilly low, set up on an end, See little baby go out at town end”, which refers to the flame of a candle.

Less enticingly, an earlier writer explained it as a “mere straw fire” and Nathan Bailey glossed it in his Dictionarium Britannicum as a “comfortless blaze”. To counter that, John Ray noted in his Collection of English Proverbs that it was “a comfortable Blaze”. Take your pick.

The second part is from an old Scandinavian word that meant a light or a flame, a distant relative through Indo-European of our light. As lowe it has been used for a fire or a small candle or other naked flame. It’s still known in Scotland and parts of northern England.

The source of the first element of lilly-low is said to be unknown, though we might guess at a version of little. However, modern Scandinavian parallels exist, such as the Danish lille lue, a small flame, which suggest that the first element is actually a survivor of an ancient Scandinavian import. Another relative is the German lichterloh, as in “Das Feuer brennt lichterloh”, the fire burned brightly.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Nov. 2014

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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-lil1.htm
Last modified: 8 November 2014.