Free the Word: cheeselog
In this first blog post of the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Berkshire’s chosen word, which will be the subject of a poem by Hollie McNish.
cheeselog n. a woodlouse.
At the heart of this year’s National Poetry Day has been the nationwide appeal for distinctive regional words and phrases. As the public’s suggestions started coming in certain themes emerged. Some objects and concepts show much more regional variation than others: so we have seen that there are several words for alleyways, sheep on their back (suggestions included ‘kessened’, ‘far-welted’, and ‘coupit’), soft bread rolls (‘cob’, ‘batch’, ‘teacake’, ‘bap’, ‘bun’, etc.), and last but not least woodlice.
Local words for woodlice are often very evocative, with pigs, cheese, logs, and pills being a recurring theme. (This blog post explores some of the names, past and present, for these creatures.) So the creatures known as ‘roly-poly bugs’ in North America, ‘slaters’ in Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia, and ‘chucky pigs’ in the south-west of England, are often called ‘cheeselogs’ in the south of England, particularly in Berkshire. And it was ‘cheeselog’ (along with ‘cheesehog’, ‘cheezog’, and ‘chizzlepig’) which was a popular choice when BBC Berkshire listeners were asked to suggest distinctive local words.
Researching this word was particularly fun. The earliest example we have found so far is from a medical work of 1657 which lists ingredients which are recommended for breaking down kidney stones:
Ashes of scorpions, cheese logges or wood-lice, or monkes pease, beetles, hares kidnyes, powders of a Man’s skull, of the warts and hoofes of horses, of the cocall bones of a hare, Ivory, pikes jaw, craw fish, the stoppings of snailes shels in the winter, egge shels, crabs eyes, mouse dung, [etc.].
In fact, woodlice make frequent appearances in works of this period, appearing in remedies for many conditions, including jaundice, ulcers, and whooping cough. Cheeselogs next appear in written records 200 years later and in a specifically Berkshire context. Although, as lexicographers, our main focus is when and how a particular word is used, it is often hard not to be beguiled by associated details and circumstances—whether this is disgusting-sounding folk remedies or, in this case, a shower of toads which fell on Eton College in 1864. An article in the Morning Post about this strange event ends by describing how as toads ‘live chiefly on cheeselogs, most of the forcing frames in the royal gardens at Windsor contain one of these creatures for the purpose of destroying the cheeselogs’.
But where does the name ‘cheeselog’ come from, and does it actually have anything to do with cheese or logs? Probably not. One suggested origin of the word is that it is a folk-etymological variant of the earlier ‘cheslock’, whose origin is itself obscure. It is perhaps an inversion of the term ‘lockchest’, a now-obsolete word for the creature, and may refer to its habit of rolling itself up tightly, or perhaps it is related to the Latin word locusta, a type of crustacean. Related terms, with equally complicated etymologies, include ‘lockchester’, ‘lugdor’, ‘cheslip’, and chesil-bob.