Free the Word: ginnel and twitten
As part of the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Leeds and Sussex’s chosen words, which will be the subjects of poems by Vidyan Ravinthiran and James Brookes, respectively.
ginnel n. an alleyway.
twitten n. an alleyway.
As with woodlice and soft bread rolls, words for alleyways exhibit a lot of regional variation and such words often serve as a much-loved marker of where one is from. We received a number of alleyway suggestions when we asked the public to suggest their local words, including ‘scutchel’, ‘jitty’, ‘ginnel’, and ‘twitten’. It is these last two which have been chosen for the Leeds and Sussex poets respectively.
One of the earliest references to ‘ginnel’ is from a Manchester court record of 1603 where it refers to an artificial channel for carrying sewage away:
Roberte Charnocke..hath newlie erected a privie, the ffilthe whereof ffalleth into a certen Gynnell or gutter.
The same court records have a similar example from 1647:
Mr John Marler shall cause the said Ginnell soe to bee clensed as it may not bee for the future preiudiciall to others.
Although the origin of ‘ginnell’ is unknown, the fact that the earliest evidence refers to a channel suggests that it is a variant of that word.
‘Ginnel’, in the sense with which we are familiar today, is also found in 17th century Manchester court records:
Wm Jackson hath made a Doore into A Ginnell belongeinge to Edmo Heywood. (1669)
‘Ginnel’ is now found throughout the Midlands and north of England and especially in Greater Manchester and parts of Yorkshire, where such alleyways are an intrinsic part of the urban environment, finding their way into poems by Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes, and Sean O’Brien among others. The Leeds-born singer-songwriter Jake Thackray uses the word in ‘I stayed off Work Today’, a 1977 song full of evocative slang expressions:
The day before your birthday I was miserably broke
Mooching up a ginnel, when this military bloke
Comes up and says he’ll give us a sub to buy a flower or two for you
He hands me down a shilling and I signs an I.O.U.
(Unfortunately the soldier turns out to be a scoundrel and the singer finds that he’s joined ‘the sodding army’.)
Compared to Leeds, Sussex does not have a large number of current regionalisms; although Victorian glossaries of the Sussex dialect show that this hasn’t always been the case. However, if you were to ask someone from Sussex for a distinctive local word, chances are they’ll say ‘twitten’.
The etymology of ‘twitten’ is uncertain but it may have its origin in the Old English word ‘twicen’, which is used in Anglo-Saxon charters to refer to a place where two roads meet. ‘Twicen’ may also have given rise to ‘twitchel’ which is another alleyway word, this time from the east Midlands.
The first known evidence in print for ‘twitten’ (in the form ‘twitting’) occurs in an account of a journey from London to the Isle of Wight undertaken by the naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726–98). In this passage Pennant is describing the streets of Brighthelmstone (as Brighton was then known):
There are no lanes or cross streets nor have the parallel streets any other communication than alleys, or, as they are called here, twittings, narrow passages often not three feet wide, scarcely pervious by two bulky people, should they chance to meet.
The word also caught the fancy of Virginia Woolf, who made Sussex her adopted home. In a letter of 1937 she writes: “We never saw Angelica, only Mrs Bradfield and another earnest worker, who dogged us through the lanes, or twittens as I prefer to call them.”
Today ‘twitten’ is still going strong: from a tweet thanking Haywards Heath Town Council for clearing snow from the twitten between Bentswood Crescent and Washington Road to We run the Twittens, a group devoted to Sunday runs up the steep lanes of Lewes.