Free the Word: didlum
In this third blog post of the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Humberside’s chosen word, which will be the subject of a poem by Dean Wilson.
didlum n. a Christmas savings scheme.
Didlums are a way for people to spread out the cost of Christmas over the year. A group of friends, family members, or colleagues nominate a treasurer and pay a regular amount to that person throughout the year; then, at Christmas, the treasurer distributes the accumulated money to the scheme’s participants. People have made use of similar schemes for centuries and they go by a number of names including ‘menage’, ‘tontine’, ‘farthing club’, ‘slate club’, and ‘friendly society’.
When didlums are mentioned in printed sources such as newspapers it tends to be because something has gone wrong. The treasurer has run off with the money and this crime, or the subsequent trial, is reported by the newspaper. The earliest example we have found of the word so far is from just such a report in the Times of 1901:
William Driscoll, of Gordon-road, Stoke Newington, was charged on remand with stealing £82 on December 24, the moneys of the members of the Diddlum Loan Club, which existed among the members of the City of London Electric Lighting Company… The subscriptions were a shilling per week, and the money was to be shared out at Christmas.
Over a hundred years later, the Hull Daily Mail is still running stories about groups of colleagues left penniless after their treasurer has stolen the didlum.
The risk of losing all one’s savings when temptation gets the better of the treasurer seems to be reflected in the very name of the scheme. It is probable that ‘didlum’ has its origins in the verb ‘to diddle’ meaning ‘to swindle’, which has been in use since at least the beginning of the 19th century. This relationship between ‘didlum’ and ‘diddle’ has been the subject of comment for almost as long as the word itself. For example, in another crime report of 1913:
During the hearing of a case at North London Police Court on Wednesday, in which John Thomas Scrase, 36, a window cleaner, of Pedro-street, Clapton Park, was charged with converting to his own use various sums of money paid into a loan club of which he was the secretary and treasurer. It was stated that the name of the club was the ‘Diddlum Club.’
Mr. Chester Jones.—I think ‘diddlum’ means to do you out of something.
And in a 1932 case in Greater Manchester, the court clerk is recorded as saying: ‘I am rather surprised at anyone subscribing after they knew the name of the club.’
However, newspaper reports of thieving treasurers and devastated savers are not the whole story. The reason didlums persist is that, when successful, they reward participants with a nice lump sum to spend at an expensive time of the year. The theatre director Joan Littlewood touches on the benefits of the scheme in a scene from her 1994 autobiography (although there is a sting in the tail):
‘What we need is a barrel of ale,’ said Jim.
‘We’re not made of money,’ said Bob.
‘Well, there’s the Slate Club,’ said Mumski, ‘the Diddlum. We’ll get a drop of gin and a Johnnie Walker out of that.’
‘And some port and lemon,’ said Carrie.
They had paid into the Diddlum all year. The local publican, Billy Borndrunk, held the bank. It was to be hoped there wouldn’t be another to-do, like last year. The bloke round the Queen’s Head had spent the lot and then hanged himself.
Moreover, we can see many examples on Twitter of people looking forward to receiving money from their didlum, such as user @abi31vh who tweets:
So glad i saved £150 in my didlum for Christmas!
— Abi Hattersley (@abi31vh) October 19, 2013
As the examples above show, the word ‘didlum’ was in common use in various parts of England and Ireland from the early 1900s onwards. However, in recent decades, usage has declined in most places with the exception of Humberside. Now, if you hear the word ‘didlum’, it’s a fair bet that the person using it will be from Hull.