Friday, 1 April 2011

A hundred words for mud

If you follow Language Log, you'll know that the yarn that Eskimos have a gazillion number of words for snow has been thoroughly debunked (see, for instance, Geoffrey K Pullum's chapter The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax from his 1991 book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language).

Nevertheless, specialist and ultra-specific vocabularies do exist, such as niche terms in particular trades, and I was pleased to find an example last week in a short monograph issued as a small octavo sized pamphlet, The Exe: Piscatorial Jottings (Philip S King, Whittaker and Company, Exeter, 1871). I assume the author is the same Philip S King who regularly contributed to Notes and Queries in the mid to late 1800s, including one entry about salmon fishing.

The pamphlet lists various East Devon terminology about fish and tackle that I'd encountered before (such as "wrinkling", "snooding", "lask", "bobbin pale", and so on (see Wayland Wordsmith's piece on Eden Philpotts' novel Redcliff - Fishing from Lympstone, 1922). The section where it describes traditional Exe estuary salmon fishing - seine fishing with a draw net, on foot from the mud flats at low tide - also lists the local terms for various mudbanks: Black Oar, Bull Hill, Withies Mud, the Reach, etc.  But in addition it has an interesting glossary of terms used by Exe salmon fishers for the mud itself.

Modder - generic mud, that found on a mud-flat.
Grease - grey mud.
Roody - red mud.
Nore - black mud.
Apsamite - mud off Topsham.
Clissle - mud at the mouth of the River Clyst.
Darlen - the sandy mud off Lympstone.
Roodlag - a thin layer of red mud deposited on grey.
Greylag - a thin layer of grey mud deposited on red.
Verdygrease -  mud that has acquired a skin of green algae.
Musslecrake - mud with mussel shell fragments, deposited by a rising tide after a storm at a sea.
Plurge - nearly liquid mud.
Sleesh - semi-solid mud at the channel edge, too soft to cross on foot.
Stettle - sleesh that has dried sufficiently to support a boy's weight.
Steddish - stettle that has dried sufficiently to support a man's weight.
Drag-me-down - a patch of deceptively soft mud that falsely appears to be steddish.
Stank - foul-smelling mud.
Dartymore - mud speckled with bird footprints, thus resembling the arrowed cloth of convict uniforms
Lords-mercy - an isolated patch of steddish, where an unwary fisherman stranded by the rising tide may safely wait until the water is deep enough for a boat to approach.
Boggies-nest - a tangle of buried vegetation that can trap the ankles.
Tautplash - flecks on the face, from mud thrown off when a mooring rope goes taut.
Jack o' daddock - a log or baulk of timber half-buried in the mud
Poleon - a Jack o' daddock that from a distance resembles a muddied corpse.
Griffen - the human-shaped hollow left in firm mud after the extrication of a person who has fallen in it.
Abram's nammet - a rare edible mud deposited after a clean calm high tide, used as a spread upon bread.
Gammet - Abram's nammet befouled by sea-birds, so "fit only for a gannet to eat".
Moon modder - mud purported to have curative properties after exposure to the light of a waxing April moon.
Fool's modder - mud applied inexpertly to the boots and clothes in aid of the pretence that one has been fishing rather than in the public house.

Although short of 100 words, that's still enough to be a good example of how a large jargon vocabulary can grow up, in this case reflecting the importance in the fishermen's lives of a thoroughly mundane substance.

- Ray


  1. How wonderful! :-)

    A recompense for those of us whose childhood mythologies were sadly yielded up in the face of Pullum et al [grin]

  2. Hang on ... this isn't an April Fool, is it...?


  3. Thank you for brightening my day!

  4. Just had a lovely sandwich for lunch, with a delightful filling of salad and Abram's nammet. Thank you so much for introducing me to such a rare delicacy. So glad it hadn't turned to gammet!



  5. Read a little while ago an Anna Pigeon mystery "Flashback." In it figures prominently Dr. Mudd who set John Wilkes Booth's leg on his escape from Ford Theater after assassinating President Lincoln. Mudd was imprisoned on an Island off the Florida Keys which is the setting of the mystery. Mudd's infamy gave rise to the saying "Your name is mud." I guess he blogged as Dr. M.