Susie Dent

Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 of the best local expressions

Grab yourself a bap, barn cake or bread roll, and enjoy Susie Dent's latest top ten. This week, it's the best local expressions. Oo arr, and all that.

‘Where do you think you’re from, Pilkingtons?’*

The days of lockdown had many of us reaching for the sayings of our parents and grandparents for comfort, shrugging them on like old, cosy, and infinitely baggy jumpers. Since then, I have put out many a request on Twitter for home sayings – the ones that will immediately transport us back to childhood, or that have become a kind of linguistic shorthand for a loved one. Here are just some of the best local expressions.

*This one about Pilkington’s was popular in St. Helen’s, home for many years to the famous glass-makers. Consequently anyone who dared stand in front of the TV might well risk being asked whether they assumed people could see through them.

Go to the foot of our stairs

An exclamation of surprise from the 1930s (at least), and one that is unmistakably northern, ‘I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ has come in various flavours, including ‘I’ll go the bottom of our garden’. None of them have much apparent logic to them, but the stairs version might well conjure up the idea of falling down a flight of steps in astonishment.

READ MORE: Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 words from the language of romance

It’s a bit black over Bill’s mother

Used whenever the skies look ominously dark, you’ll find this expression mostly in the Midlands, where it is said to refer to William Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, from where storms often arrive from a south-westerly direction. Others put their money on Kaiser Wilhelm II, said to have a changeable and blustery disposition.

He couldn’t stop a pig in a ginnel

When it comes to dialect’s themes, alleyways are amongst the most popular. Do you call them snickets, twittens, loanings, ginnels, or even eight-foots? Whatever you use, most are so narrow that stopping a pig between your legs might be quite easy – but not if you are bandy-legged, which is the meaning behind this mischievously mocking expression.

pigs swimming

These pigs could surely never be stopped, in a ginnel or otherwise. (credit: Getty Images)

It looks like the wreck of the Hesperus

The US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave us the dark poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’, in which a father and his small daughter die when their ship hits rocks in a storm. The phrase is now used to describe a state of utter disarray or untidiness, as in ‘tidy your room – it looks like the wreck of the Hesperus’.

Making a whimwham for waterwheels

Any parent will appreciate the occasional sense of frustration or irritation that ensues when their child declares they are bored and in need of entertainment. The linguistic result has been a host of fob-offs in which the parent explains they are doing something rather more important. The whimwham here can stand in for any fanciful or fantastic object (it is the parent of our modern ‘whim’). It could perform other functions too, in which case you might be ‘making a whimwham to wind the sun up’. Whether any child has fallen for it is another matter.

When the devil’s a duck and he ain’t been feathered yet

A lot of people have told me that asking at home when tea was going to be ready was a particularly dangerous pursuit. One of my favourite comebacks is this one, simply because it is so surreal. Were you to ask what you were having for tea was just as risky: responses included ‘two alore and a plate of straw’, and ‘air pie and a walk around the table’.

duck flying

This is a duck. Or is it the devil? We’re not quite sure. (credit: Getty Images)

Don’t just stand there like Piffy on a rock bun

Any person to whom this was directed would be either hanging about pointlessly or looking a bit incongruous. No one quite knows who or what Piffy was, and why they might choose to climb a rock bun – it may be a riff on ‘sitting like Patience on a monument’ (that clears that up), but there may be a nod to a sad children’s story about a character who is left on a rock on the beach when the tide comes in.

It’d take two of you to make a halfwit

Affectionate teasing is a common theme in family sayings. This one joins ‘if brains was med of dynamite you wouldn’t have enuff to blow yer bloody nose’ and, better still, ‘you couldn’t punch the skin of a rice pudding’.

READ MORE: Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 Words for Utter Rubbish

Because Y’s a crooked letter, and I can’t straighten it

The old word ‘rogitate’ means to ask the same question over and over. This of course includes a child’s ‘why?’ in response to any parental statement, in which case the said parent might happily respond with the above.

I’m not so green as I’m cabbage looking.

It doesn’t pay to look for too much logic in this brassicaceous saying, but it’s a wonderfully pithy way of saying ‘you can’t pull the wool over my eyes’


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