One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
The origin of ‘Geordie’
Before considering how the history of the north-east of England has shaped its words, it is worth noting that it is a region in which several dialects are to be found. As with most informal notions of identity, the application and scope of a particular term depend on one’s point of view. For those outside the region, Geordie may seem an appropriate label for anyone from the north-east, and for the dialect they speak. Using it in this broad sense, however, is unlikely to endear you to some of the residents of other parts of the region such as Tyne & Wear, Northumberland, County Durham, or Teesside.
Although identifying the form ‘Geordie’ as a diminutive of George is uncontroversial, establishing the reason that this came to denote certain people in the north-east is not, and various explanations have been proposed. One is that it was conferred on the people of Newcastle upon Tyne because they supported George I and George II in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745—suggesting that, from its beginning, it was a term to distinguish the city’s residents from others in the region, who backed the Stuarts.
Other explanations focus on mining, which naturally experienced rapid expansion and development during the industrialization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These accounts tend to see the word either as a general term for a north-east colliery worker (see sense 3b in OED’s entry for Geordie)—arising out of the fact that George was a common, and therefore stereotypical, pitman’s name—or as an extension of the nickname for George Stephenson’s safety-lamp (OED, sense 3a) to the miners themselves.
The increasing importance of the mining industry was accompanied by a growing interest in the pitmatic vernacular, mentioned above, and other aspects of local language and culture. This interest led to the publication of dictionaries, such as John Trotter Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words in Use (1825) and Oliver Heslop’s Northumberland Words (1892), as well as collections of local songs, such as John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812) and Thomas Allan’s Tyneside Songs (1862). As the historian of northern English, Katie Wales, suggests, local pride in the image of mining ‘Geordies’, captured in these popular songs, established them as ‘industrial icons of the region’. The importance of the industry and the positive associations of this word in turn help to explain why a term that applied generally to miners throughout the north-east became associated in particular with Tyneside, as the focal point of that industry in the region, and then to the people of Tyneside as a whole.
Language and local identity
Given these developments in the nineteenth century, it is notable that the OED’s current first reference specifically to the Tyneside dialect—‘broad Geordie accents’—dates from 1903. Whatever the reason for this apparent late development, it indicates the continuing relevance of language as an essential aspect of local identity. Another sign of this, and of the fact that ‘Geordie’ would not be accepted as a label by everyone across the north-east, is the emergence of terms that denote inhabitants of other areas—reflecting their own particular sense of regional identity, and sometimes features of their specific dialect.
The OED entry for Mackem, a ‘native or inhabitant of Sunderland or Wearside’, notes that the form alludes to a pronunciation of make which is typical in Sunderland, but not Newcastle, just as ‘toon’ (town) would mark a Tyneside, but not a Wearside, accent. With the additional definition of ‘a supporter of Sunderland Association Football Club’ and a first citation from a Newcastle United Supporters Club fanzine (1980-1), Mackem also reveals how these terms may come to prominence as comic pejorative labels used by sporting rivals, only to be adopted more widely and accepted by the group they describe. The same may happen with Smoggie (a supporter of Middlesbrough Football Club, or a person from Teesside more generally), which stems from the local chemical industry, just as Mackem is taken to refer to shipbuilding, and Geordie may have its roots in mining.
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