Free the Word: gurt
In the penultimate post of the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores Bristol’s chosen word ‘gurt’, which will be the subject of a poem by Vanessa Kisuule.
gurt adv. very, really.
We had an enthusiastic response when we canvassed Bristolians for their distinctive local vocabulary and popular suggestions included ‘slider’ (a playground slide), ‘scrage’ (to scrape, graze), ‘babber’ (a term of affection), and ‘drive’ (a bus driver, usually used in the phrase ‘cheers drive’). However, by far the most popular suggestion was ‘gurt’, a versatile word meaning ‘great’, ‘very’, or ‘really’.
‘Gurt’ (or ‘gert’) has its origins in a very common English word: ‘great’. ‘Great’ became ‘gurt’ by a process called metathesis, which is when the letters or sounds in a word are transposed (in this case the ‘r’ and the vowel). Other examples of metathesis include ‘ax’ for ‘ask’ and ‘Brummagem’ for ‘Birmingham’ (which in turn has given rise to ‘Brum’ and ‘Brummie’). ‘Gurt’ is first recorded, in the sense ‘great’, in the late 14th century and it later became restricted to local varieties of English, particularly in the north-west and south-west of England, as the following examples show:
- Who tells the gurtest fibs now, said I? (a1794, Devon)
- Saint Gworge, the girt champion, o’ fame and renown. (1803, Cumberland)
- Black Jarge be a gert, big, strong man—the biggest, gertest, and strongest in the South Country. (1911, Kent)
- Just had a gurt bowl of Somerset pork casserole. (2015, Somerset)
However, from its beginnings as a variant of ‘great’, ‘gurt’ has undergone a further transformation from an adjective to an adverb, and it is this adverbial use which is particularly associated with the south-west and Bristol in particular.
The English Dialect Dictionary records ‘gurt’ being used to add emphasis (or, as grammarians say, intensify) adjectives from the 19th century in examples such as ‘a girt high wall’ and by the 21st century the adverb is commonplace with those in the south-west describing things as ‘gurt annoying’, ‘gurt clever’, and, perhaps most frequently, ‘gurt lush’.
Now, in Bristol, ‘gurt lush’ has become not just a common expression to express one’s liking for something but a catchphrase for the city, as can be seen in the numerous t-shirts printed with the phrase, the name of a community choir (the Gurt Lush Choir), and a local café based in Mongolian-style tents (Yurt Lush).