Free the Word: dimpsy
As part of National Poetry Day 2017’s Free the Word campaign, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Devon’s chosen phrase, which will be the subject of a poem by Chrissy Williams.
dimpsy adj. dusky.
When listeners to BBC Radio Devon were asked for their distinctive local words ‘dimpsy’ (also ‘dimpsey’, ‘dumpsey’, ‘dimsey’, etc.) was by far the most popular suggestion. This lovely word is used in the south-west of England as a noun to refer to twilight and as an adjective with the sense ‘dusky, dim’.
The origin of ‘dimpsy’ is not certain. One theory is that it may be derived from ‘dim’ (which can be used as a noun to mean ‘dusk’), and ‘dim’ certainly seems to be the origin of ‘dimmit’, another word from the south-west of England meaning ‘dusk’.
The noun ‘dimpsy’ takes many forms and it seems that it was originally used in the form ‘dimps’ (also ‘dimpse’, ‘dempse’, ‘dampse’, etc.). The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from an account by a native of Devon, Robert Lyde, in his 1693 work A true and exact account of the retaking a ship, called the Friend’s Adventure of Topsham, from the French: ‘But by all the Sail that I could make, I got no neerer than a Mile to the Bar, in the dimps of the Night.’
The form ‘dimpsey’ occurs in an 1896 work The Witch of Withyford (subtitled ‘A Tale of Exmoor’) by Gratiana Chanter, who was the niece of the novelist Charles Kingsley. In this novel the dimpsy is an eerie time when pixies are wont to appear:
There be pixies in the dimpsey here. I gathered their wool last year, a sackful down in the zug. And Thirza saith they’ed be after me sure, if they caught me in the Combe, so I go terrible soft like, as they shan’t hear me coming. Do you ever see them dance, Malvina, dance in the dimpsey, maid?
‘Dimpsy’ as an adjective meaning ‘dusky’ is also in regular use in the south-west of England. It is frequently used to describe the distinctive light of dusk (or dawn) or the time when this light is present, as these tweets show:
— Barbara Witkowski (@OntheR1se) June 8, 2015
Out in the garden in the dimpsey morning light. Sky is blue and filled with herring gulls. I can hear blackbirds shrieking warnings. Lovely.
— Ann Murray (@AnniePalitoy) December 25, 2010
Beautiful silky water at the Steps this evening, for a dimpsy swim with Venus twinkling in the south-west. pic.twitter.com/WHzOEPIhOu
— Ju in Devon 🏊 (@JuInDevon) October 26, 2016
— Allie Johns MSc (@AllieJohns) June 16, 2015
‘Dimpsy’ is just one of many evocative words English has to describe dusk or twilight. The Historical Thesaurus of the OED is a great way to survey the language of dusk over the centuries. Clicking on the thesaurus link at the entry for ‘twilight’ introduces us to such wonderful expressions as ‘gloaming’, ‘crepusculum’, ‘cock-shut’, ‘day-going’, ‘grisping’, ‘owl-light’, and ‘evenglome’.