Lambley viaduct

North-east English history in north-east English words

Even with these specific notions of identity, some of the region’s words clearly belong to a wider northern vocabulary that can be traced back to Old English, and often also to Old Norse, which may have reinforced related English words, helping save them from the loss that occurred in areas where the Vikings did not settle.

This may explain the northern survival of words such as larn (a form of ‘learn’, with the specific meaning ‘teach’, as in the following example from 1959: ‘That'll larn you, you so-and-sos.’) and bairn (child), though others, such as beck (brook, stream), are more straightforward Norse loanwords. There are also a number of terms that the north-east shares not only with the rest of northern England, but also with Scotland (e.g. clarty, dirty) and sometimes Ireland (e.g. pike, pointed hill). In a number of cases, however, they have meanings particularly associated with the region.

The impact of mining and related maritime industries can be seen both in fresh meanings attached to old words, such as dike (a fissure in a coal seam, a sense first recorded in 1789), and in the introduction of new terms, such as rolley (a mining truck, first recorded in 1817) and off-putter (someone who loads coal onto ships, first recorded in 1788). The influx of Scottish and Irish people that accompanied this industrial growth also had an impact. Forms first recorded in the late-eighteenth or early nineteenth century that are common to Scotland, Ireland, and north-east England include the pains, as a reference specifically to rheumatism, and polis (police/policeman).

While many words from this period, often like the things they denoted, have since become obsolete, other traditional dialect terms have certainly endured. Together with these, the addition of more recent terms to the Oxford English Dictionary—such as the previously mentioned Mackem—or charver (a brash and loutish young person, a chav) means that a visiting metropolitan reporter might still possibly be met by ‘men talking an unintelligible language’, though probably not in a colliery foreman’s office.

See more from Geordie and other dialects of north-east England