Thursday 23 November 2017

Introducing... the Yorkshire Historic Dictionary

Historic documents abound with unknown words. Some are localised or specialist terms which may still be in use today in isolated areas or amongst experts. Others are obsolete, having been either subsumed into a synonym or died out with changes in domestic or industrial practice.  Woodland managers still talk about standards in coppicing and falconry enthusiasts use the term nare but no-one wears strandling, drinks from a costrel or transports goods in a frail. Sometimes word survival is unclear: does anyone sleep under a caddow today? Do you frame thissen when you’re working purposefully? When you get into an argument are you fratching?

MD79 Northallerton Field Survey map 
In November 2017, we began an ambitious new fifteen-month project to create a dictionary of historic Yorkshire terms. Building on the work of Dr George Redmonds who has over a sixty-year career amassed a catalogue of 9,000 terms and phrases, the project will produce a published Yorkshire Dictionary (with the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society Record Series) as well as an interactive online version.

Language is important to our understanding of our culture, our identity, our heritage, our landscape. As I read through the Dictionary entries I am struck by the specificity of many of the terms. A frank is a stall or sty in which hogs are fattened. A gyle-fat is a vat in which the wort is left to ferment during brewing. A carr was wet boggy ground where willows and alders grew. To simply call these things, as we might today, a stall, a vat, or a marsh distances us not just from the objects but from the activities and landscapes they were connected with. This, in turn, devalues them and removes these aspects of our history from our collective identity.

Will of John Dickson, clothier, March 1587/8
Through capturing these words and their meanings and making them freely available to the world we hope to promote a greater understanding of Yorkshire’s culture and identity, both in relation to the past and as it relates to the people of Yorkshire today. While dialect has receded it has certainly not died out and there are plenty of words and phrases in the Dictionary which will be recognised by modern readers. We hope that modern users of Yorkshire dialects will help to enrich the dictionary by providing their own evidence of use of dialect terms - perhaps even recording people using terms in their day-to-day lives.

The Dictionary will have sophisticated interpretative elements to enable the terms to be explored not just for meaning but for geographic or temporal use, as well as how terms related to particular industries or practices, or specific types of landscape. All of the software created will be open-source, so that (hopefully) other interested organisations can create their own regional language dictionary.

The Yorkshire Historic Dictionary project was generously funded by the Marc Fitch Foundation in memory of David Hey, who died in 2016. David was a respected and admired local and family historian who published works on (among others) the history of Sheffield, rural metalworkers, and surname history. He was a long-time friend and collaborator of Dr George Redmonds. The project is based at and managed by the Borthwick Institute for Archives, in partnership with Dr George Redmonds and the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society.

For further information about the project, follow the dedicated Twitter feed @YorksDictionary or contact the project archivist at

Edit 25/01/2019 The Yorkshire Historical Dictionary is now available online at

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