Monday, 23 May 2011

Fishy Tales

I swear you could smell Nigel's fish van before you saw it.  Monday was his day and it was a safe bet that the fish so artistically arranged in the back of the van had spent a warm weekend there.  Perhaps it wasn't the fish, but Nigel's coat, spattered with scales and blood, that announced his coming.

Or perhaps it was Nigel.  For Nigel was half-man, half-fish: a bucca from the village of Newlyn - one of Britain's biggest fishing ports, a mere three miles from our farmhouse at Castallack.  Health and Safety had passed Nigel by, or not reached him yet.  But I always bought fish from Nigel because he brought something else with him as well as the fish: Cornish dialect expressions.

Even though hardly anyone speaks Cornish any more, even as a second language, the Cornish have taken everyday English and made it little short of poetic.  When they are speaking quickly, there's no way an incomer can understand them, which is probably the point.  When they are speaking slowly, Cornish-English is a revelation.

We all know the word emmet (ant) used for holidaymakers.  Most of us have heard of dreckly, the Cornish version of manana.  Most of us know proper job, meaning good.  We soon get used to hearing dear of her whenever mention is made of a child or old person (it means Ah, bless!).  Almost every woman who has been to Cornwall will have been pleased to be called my handsome, my queen, my lover.  Or, in the case of a man, greeted with orright, boy?  Wasson, old cock?  You might not be so pleased to be described as a beauty, however, since she is a woman of ill repute.  Or, if you are a man, a tuss.  Same as cock, only ruder.

Many expressions reflect the close relationship with animals in a community that is very much about farming and fishing.  How dark was it, Nigel?  Black as a dog's gut. How rich was he Nigel?  More money than a oss got shit.  Someone scritched like a winnard - a winnard being a redwing.  A clumsy person behaved like a cow handling a musket.  You might be teasy as a' adder, or rough as rats.   She 'ad a mouth like a duck's fert is self-explanatory.

The Cornish dialect is rife with double negatives.  Instead of "Would you like to buy a donkey?" a Cornishman might ask don't spose you don't know nobody what don't want no donkey, do 'ee?  Where are you two going? translates into Where you two to?  Very is always some, as in she were some teasy (pretty annoyed).

Never mind if Nigel's fish sometime smeeched a bit - his fishy tales were always proper job.


  1. My friend Sue's mum (who was brought up in Pz) used to say "rough as 'obs". At least I think there is a missing 'h', because I have assumed that 'obs are hobnails as in boots. But what do I know?

  2. Funny I was just thinking about you this morning and wondering when you'd do your second post! Great to see all these familiar phrases and I can hear them in my head as I read. Hello from Lamorna - Castellack is lovely isn't it - up there out of the valley like us lot on the other side near Menwinnion. Kate

  3. This made me laugh out loud. I must remember some of these and use them. Cornish dialect will be spreading thanks to you!