Alleyways of language: regional words for ‘alleyway’
In these times of mass media and global communications, it is comforting to think that regional lexical variation in British English is alive and well—in fact it seems to be right up many people’s alley. When linguists set out to collect distinctive local vocabulary, one of the classic questions informants are asked is “What do you call the narrow walkway between or along buildings?”
Ginnel or snicket?
It is striking just how many words seem to exist to denote this single, relatively specific, concept. A few (like alleyway, passage, and path) are used nationwide, but a plethora of more unusual words also seem to fit this slot in speakers’ vocabulary, and many of them have a distinctively regional distribution. Informants from the north west of England speak up in favour of the snicket, a noun of uncertain origin first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in a Victorian glossary of the dialect of the Lake District. Another term, ginnel, is also widely used in Greater Manchester and parts of Yorkshire.
Some speakers use both ginnel and snicket, but for different kinds of passageway, reserving one term for a short, narrow covered passage between two houses and the other for a typically longer, wider, walkway running between two streets; although even here, there is disagreement about which is which. To confuse matters further, in 1983, Mark W. Jones ingeniously blended the two in the title of his book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, and though the city’s tourist industry has been quick to take advantage of the marketing potential of his picturesque portmanteau, it has yet to make significant inroads into the speech of locals.
Jitties, jiggers, and ennogs
Even for a single item of vocabulary, it is surprising how much variation can exist. In parts of Manchester and Derbyshire the variant gennel is preferred to ginnel, and while some prescribe a pronunciation with hard G (as in get) and a spelling guinnel, others insist on an initial affricate (as in jet), and a spelling jennell. In Warwickshire, Coventry, and parts of Leicestershire, an alleyway was often called a jetty or jitty: the word is reflected in the name of several streets in Rugby and Northampton. Around this area and further to the north-west, the term entry is also used, especially of the covered passageway in a row of terraced houses used to access the back yard (the Scouse word ennog seems to be a playful alteration of this). And so it goes on across the country. From the jiggers of Liverpool to the pends of Dundee, the ten-foots of Hull to the lanes and closes of Edinburgh, diversity is the order of the day.
All roads lead to…
Thankfully, on closer inspection there is order to be found in this lexicographical chaos, and it is possible to identify some common themes across the miles. For instance, the origin of the ginnel (and its many variants) is revealed by the local court records from Manchester, which not only provide OED’s earliest evidence for this word as a term for a passage between houses in 1669, but also show it in use more than 50 years earlier to denote a gutter or drain: the word appears to have arisen as a variant of channel.
In parts of Scotland and Ireland, a narrow alley is not a gennel but a vennel, a word which was also once used in Northumberland for a conduit or open sewer: this seems to be a 15th-century borrowing of a medieval French word for an alley, venelle (or venele), ultimately a diminutive of the Latin word for “vein”. Similar semantic motivation seems to lie behind the use of gully (or gulley) as a word for a passageway in parts of the Black Country and Wales. Wherever you live, it seems, an alley can be a damp and smelly place.
The east Midlands was the heartland of the twitchel: the word’s connection with this area seems to go back at least to the 15th century, when it is recorded in Nottingham. Twitchel seems ultimately to be a variant (with a different suffix) of the Old English word twicen, a word used in Anglo-Saxon charters for a place where two roads meet which may be related to twitten, the local word for an alleyway in Sussex.
Chare, chure, chewar
In County Durham and Newcastle-on-Tyne, a narrow passageway is often called a chare—the word survives in the names of a number of streets in the area and is first recorded in the 13th century in the name of Potter’s Chare, a former street in Gateshead. This term is thought to derive from the Old English word cierr “turning”, and so has a semantic parallel in another alleyway word, wynd, used in the same area and in Scotland.
We can follow the trail of this word to the other end of the country, around Banbury in Oxfordshire, where linguistic clues can be found in a group of local street names: the villages of Deddington, Upper Heyford, and Steeple Aston each have an alley called The Tchure, Charlton-on-Otmoor has a narrow lane called The Chure, and Buckingham The Chewar. The English Dialect Dictionary records the word tewer in use this area in Victorian times for “a narrow lane or passage”, and identifies it as a variant of the Geordie chare. This is not the only explanation that has been offered for the Oxfordshire names, but if it is correct, it makes neat bridge across the north-south divide.