Ian Clayton column - Words worth looking after

editorial image

I was standing in the front of the coal fire in The Junction warming my backside.

That well known local character Edi of Lock Lane said: “You would make a better door than a window.”

I thought that was a good old fashioned Yorkshire expression, I’ve since discovered that the saying is popular in Ireland and America too.

In Mexico they have a saying that goes la carne del Burro no es transparente, which roughly translated means you can’t see through a donkey.

While in France they say ta pere n’est pas vitrier, your father is not a glass blower, which I think is a lovely phrase and particularly suited to those from Castleford. Edi, take note, next time I’m in your road, tell me that my father is not a glass blower.

No matter what I seem to write about, I still get more people coming up to me to talk about the origin of old phrases and words than any other thing I’ve mentioned.

I’m still not sure why this is. I’ve thought about it a lot and the only thing I can come to is that we like to look after language.

The other week, a very kindly man called Fred Taylor tracked me down in my favourite record shop because he wanted to give me some books about jazz music.

Fred said: “While I’ve got you, let me tell you my favourite Yorkshire verb, it’s “thoil” do you know what it means?” I was about to say I hadn’t heard anybody say it for ages when he said: “It means, you can afford something but you can’t justify the expense.”

I agreed, but I knew that it also means, when used in the negative, as in “I can’t thoil it” that you can’t stand something, but you must.

Thoil is a northern corruption of the verb “to thole” a very ancient word that comes from the old Norse “thola” meaning to bear or the old German “tholian” meaning to endure or suffer.

This word existed long before it was written down and it was written down a long, long time ago. It’s a word that is in Beowulf, the oldest surviving poem in old English dialect and perhaps our most important work of Anglo Saxon literature.

Nobody knows when Beowulf was actually written down, it was initially passed on by word of mouth, but it may have been as early as the 8th century and it was transcibed in England, though it concerns events in Denmark and Sweden.

These days the most celebrated translation of Beowulf and the one taught in schools is the one made by Seamus Heaney the poet in the 1990s. I had the great honour and pleasure of meeting Heaney at Harvard University in Boston while he was working on it. He told me he was having trouble accessing the dense nature of the poem until he started to recognise some of the words and phrases in it.

One of these words was the very one Fred Taylor said to me recently in Pontefract - thoil. Heaney recognised it as a word his elderly aunt had used when a child had died in a family they knew. She said: “The parents will just have to thoil.”

Having seen this word and dredging his memory, the whole manuscript opened up to him and he easily found other archaic terms that had been in everyday use in his own childhood. These were words that had somehow survived being passed mouth to mouth for centuries.

I have this theory, I know that we learn language from books and television, radio and records, but the language we know best is the language passed down to us from our forbears and this is the one that we are most comfortable with.

In the case of words like thoil they have been passed down like holy relics for generation after generation and incredible as it seems we are using words that were said when William the Conqueror was just a twinkle in his dad’s eye. I love to know about things like that.

Now, I know that Fred Taylor still uses this word thoil and I am going to start using it whenever I get the opportunity, but do you know anybody else who says it?

If you do, you can tell them they’re helping to maintain a word that is well over a thousand years old and you can thank them for looking after it.