Free the Word: bobowler
In this second blog post of the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Birmingham’s chosen word, which will be the subject of a poem by Liz Berry.
bobowler n. a large moth.
Continuing with the creepy-crawly theme, the chosen word for Birmingham is ‘bobowler’ (also spelled ‘bobhowler’) which refers to a large moth, or, perhaps more accurately in the words of one Twitter user:
Bobhowler = bloody great big moth.
— ThisisTipton (@ThisisTipton) December 11, 2014
The word first appears in written sources in the 19th century, where it is usually written as two separate words. The earliest evidence we have found so far is from 1852 with reference to a tiger moth:
The anterior portion of the body and head are clothed in a rich furlike wool of deep brown… which give it a somewhat owl-like aspect, which, together with its slow and heavy flight, obtain for it the name of Bob Owlers amongst the children in the country.
The fact that ‘owl’ is recorded around the same time as a regional word for tiger moths, supports the assertion that the bird plays a part in the word’s etymology.
In comparison with other terms ‘bobowler’ does not occur with much frequency in written sources, and when it does it is usually accompanied by an explanation of its meaning. One exception is J. R. R. Tolkien’s use in the posthumously published novella Roverandom in which the Man-in-the-Moon observes:
It’s the black-velvet bob-owlers, flying all together in clouds, that I personally like least.
Tolkien spent his childhood in Birmingham and here we see him using a local word he was surely familiar with from that time in the fantastical context of the moon’s fauna.
However, as is the case with many regional words, although ‘bobowler’ is not often found in printed sources, it certainly was and is in common use in Birmingham and the surrounding areas. We can see the evidence of this from Twitter, which offers lexicographers a living record of the words people are using in everyday conversation or messaging. It is especially valuable for finding and analysing words not found in more formal contexts. The fact that ‘bobowler’ refers specifically to a large moth, means that many of the modern twitter examples are like this tweet from 2010:
Aaaarrrrgh! A bobowler! Quick! Get it out of here! :-(
— Mrs.T (@Losinit4life) June 14, 2010