We had a number of family words which were often completely baffling to outsiders. This was sometimes because of where we lived and sometimes because they’d been made up – usually by my father.
The most embarrassing of these was ‘tuppence’ which was the family euphemism for faeces. The word ‘poo’ was considered rude by my father (I have no idea why) and so he’d invented ‘tuppence’. There was a sort of logic to this. The common British euphemism for urinating was ‘to spend a penny’ (as that was once the coin used to enter a public toilet). Therefore it followed that to do anything more substantial should cost two-pence (or tuppence). I had no idea this wasn’t a normal vernacular term until I used the word at school to widespread and derisive bafflement.
We called woodlice ‘polliwogs’ even though apparently it’s usually a word used for tadpoles. When we moved to Wales, we found them nick-named roly-polies or wood-pigs. (For a glimpse at the various regional names there are for this little creature click here – let me know if you recognise any or have alternatives.)
We also used Scottish words which my mother had grown up with: ‘hoaching’ for full of people, ‘dreich’ for dreary, ’fankle’ for tangle (as in ‘you’re getting into a right fankle with that’), ‘I’ll take it to avizandum’ (meaning ‘I’ll think about it before making a decision’). I thought the latter was entirely made up until I discovered it’s the Scottish law equivalent of the English & Welsh law ‘reserved judgment’.
Over the years spent in Wales we added Welsh expressions which I now use in England to general incomprehension: ‘dwt’ (rhyming with ‘foot’) means very small (‘she’s only a dwt’) and ‘twti’ (rhyming with ‘footie’) means to crouch down (‘I had to twti down to get it’), ‘tamping’ for furious, ’cwtch’ for cuddling.
Sadly, at school there were few attempts to interest students in the hidden gems of any language: English, Welsh, anything.
The older we got, the worse it got.The compulsory learning of some Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens ought to have given plenty of scope in words and phrases which would have delighted us as teenagers and added to our vocabulary of fruity insults.
But the classics were mostly taught as something proper, prim, respectable, dull. There was a distinct connection drawn between ‘literature’ and ‘posh’ which made us miss all the richness of language which is often very earthy, if not downright rude.
While the London vernacular in Dickens could be broadly understood at a distance of 150 years and 180 miles, 13th century Chaucer might as well have been another language.
We were told The Miller’s Tale was completely off the curriculum but not why. None of us however, could face trying to work it out by getting past
Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale tooled,
In al the route was ther yong ne oold
That he ne seyde it was a noble storie
Besides, ‘noble storie’ made it sound nothing like a tale in which someone kisses someone else’s ‘ers’ thinking it’s their face.
As for Shakespeare, his works were taught in such a way as to bore a corpse.
The teacher’s approach in O Level (14-16 year old) classes was to make us read aloud from The Merchant of Venice – not act, just read. He often picked the shy boy whose voice hadn’t broken properly to read the lead romantic role who’d then have to struggle through the most dialogue, to general sniggering by the less sensitive pupils in the class. I recall virtually nothing of the play except that.
In the A level English class (16-18), we studied The Tempest and Macbeth. I loved Macbeth because I ‘got it’ immediately and to be fair, our rather prim, ‘old’ (she was probably about 45) teacher did a good job of bringing it to life.
She never quite grasped why the class sniggered at
Enter a bleeding captain.
Duncan: ‘What bloody man is that?’
But she waggled her eyebrows to see if we understood the discussion in Act 2 Scene 3 between MacDuff and the Porter about the effects of alcohol on one’s love life.
Then she took us to join all the other sixth formers in our area to see Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth in the cinema, and missed something that an auditorium of seventeen and eighteen year olds didn’t.
It’s Act 5, Scene 1.
After instigating murder, the guilt-ridden Lady M mutters to herself as she tries to scrub imaginary blood from her hands, observed by a doctor and a gentlewoman. Despite the fact that the play is set in a Scottish stone castle in the middle ages during truly dreich weather which would normally require at least three layers of clothes, for reasons best known to Roman Polanski, in the film Lady Macbeth is wandering around stark naked.
Deeply concerned, the doctor turns to the gentlewoman and says: ‘What a sigh is there.’
What was heard by the entire auditorium of 17-18 year olds watching a nude actress cross the screen in front of them was ‘What a size they are’.
Every single sixth former fell about laughing.
Naturally, on returning to school, the person our English teacher asked to explain why 200 young people guffawed at the most poignant moment in the film was me.
Not only was I not brought up to say anything my father perceived to be rude, I was also brought up to think even a white lie was awful. But at that moment I caved in to self-preservation and the desire to retain my classmates’ respect and mumbled ‘Dunno Miss.’
I think that sums up what was wrong with the way I was taught Shakespeare in school.
I have a very strong suspicion, that if he had been in that cinema, Shakespeare would have fallen about laughing too and subsequently written the sniggering teenagers and baffled teachers into a play.
And I doubt there’d have been a euphemism in sight.
Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 73130714 © Björn Wylezich | Dreamstime.com