A survey of English dialects has been launched to look at whether people are still using words like coochy-pawed and ferntickles.

Researchers travelled across England in the 1950s asking people about their words for everyday objects.

For the first time since then they will update the “most comprehensive survey of England’s dialects ever undertaken”, after securing more than £500,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The public will also have access to the archive housed at Leeds University Library’s special collections.

How dialects have changed over time will be examined and researchers want to speak to descendants of the original interviewees.

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In the original 1950s work, researchers recorded dialect variations in handwritten notebooks, and later with cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorders that were sometimes connected to car batteries because of a lack of mains electricity.

Words such as ferntickles (freckles), coochy-pawed (left-handed), and spindleshanks (daddy long-legs) were recorded.

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The work involved interviews with “old men with good teeth” – over-65s were preferred because they were more likely to use traditional dialect and having their own teeth allowed them to speak more clearly.

A researcher's notebook showing different words and pronunciation for the word splinter
Image:
A researcher’s notebook showing different words and pronunciation for the word splinter

Researchers targeted men in rural areas who they interviewed about farming, animals, nature, the human body, family, food and the weather.

Women were largely restricted to talking about housekeeping, cooking and the laundry.

Fiona Douglas, lecturer in English language in the University Of Leeds’s school of English, said her criteria would be very different.

“I’m not just going out looking for old men with good teeth who haven’t moved anywhere,” she said.

“I want to be able to see how much dialect has changed.

“We will speak to people whose families haven’t stayed in one area for generations, as well as those who can trace their roots back to the same place over hundreds of years. We want to include everyone’s language.”

She added: “Dialect is a really good way of getting a window into the language of the past.”

Ms Douglas said that in the 1950s after the war, researchers feared that dialect would disappear forever as people were moving around the country more.

“People have been saying that since the 18th century. Of course it hasn’t disappeared but it has changed. They saw it as a race against time.”

A notebook featuring a researcher's drawing of a wagon
Image:
A notebook featuring a researcher’s drawing of a wagon

She added: “If you, your parents, grandparents or other relatives have a connection to these historical dialect studies, the project would like to hear from you.”

A pop-up dialect kit will feature in a roadshow that will go on tour as part of the project’s ongoing work with five museums – Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings in Worcestershire, Dales Countryside Museum and Ryedale Folk Museum in North Yorkshire, Suffolk’s Museum of East Anglian Life, and Weald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex – taking part.

Examples of dialect found in the original survey:

Freckles – ferntickles, murfles, brannyspreckles, brunny-spots, vrackles or frantittles

Left-handed – cack-handed, cat-handed, coochy-pawed, gibble-fisted, left-kaggy, squippy

Packed lunch – A bait, jock, snap

Splinter – spelk, spell, shive, spill

Icicles – ice-bugs, ice-candles, ice-daggles, ice-shoggles, ickles, clinkers, icy-bells, conker-bells

Daddy long-legs – May maid, john long-legs, long-legged-tailor(s), jenny-splinters, lady-milord, spindleshanks, harvest men

Cobbler – shoe-mender, greither, nobby, shoey, snobbler, stubby

Porridge-stick – mundle, patter, pot-stick, thrivel, speltle, gull-thivel

A gossip – blatherskite, cagmag, cank, jaffock, yapper, chammer, gallivanter

Bogeyman – boggart, bogle, bobby, bugaboo, jenny wisp, old harry