Tony Crowley is transforming our understanding of the history of Liverpool, one word at a time. To celebrate the launch of The Liverpool English Dictionary, we quizzed him on the evolution of language in Liverpool and his favourite ‘Scouse’ words.
The Liverpool English Dictionary records the rich vocabulary of Liverpool, what made you focus on the history of language in Liverpool?
First and foremost, I was born and bred in Liverpool so its language is my language – the form I grew up with, am most familiar with, and feel most comfortable with. But given that the language of Liverpool is also one of the most stigmatised forms in Britain, at least nationally if not locally, I wanted to show the rich historical complexity of this form with all of its distinctive lexical sharpness, humour, and edge. I also wanted to shift the focus away from the Liverpool accent – which is what most people associate the place (usually in stereotypical form) – and on to the vocabulary itself.
This book has been over thirty-five years in the making, what were the sources that you used when researching for this book?
Yes, the book has been a very long-term project. I used as wide a range of sources as I possibly could – everything from the latest digital resources of linguistic corpora (enormous data bases of words), through to local newspapers, local history books, basic glossaries of ‘Scouse’, early sociological studies of Liverpool, working-class autobiographies… you name it. Most important though was my discovery of what I call ‘the lost literature’ of Liverpool – primarily the Liverpool novel. There is an astounding history of literary production in Liverpool, ranging from mid nineteenth century critiques of mercantile capitalism, to late nineteenth century Anglo-Welsh novels, Victorian melodrama, early twentieth century feminist novels, the amazing body of James Hanley’s work, mid twentieth century ‘race’ writing, and late twentieth century ‘Scouse’ dialect novels. That range of texts gave me my most valuable material.
How do you think the history and culture of Liverpool has affected the production of the Scouse dialect?
Well, as I showed in Scouse: A Social and Cultural History (LUP 2012), ‘Scouse’ is a very modern term and wasn’t used to refer to the language of Liverpool before 1950 (and not widely till the late 50s and 60s). But given that ‘Scouse’ is now mostly used in that sense, the answer to the question is that it is the very specific history of Liverpool that has produced this form of language and its role in the everyday culture of the city. As is always the case, the language, history and culture are intricately related and the vocabulary of Scouse reflects and refracts Liverpool’s changing fortunes over the past two and a half centuries.
How do you think that this book could transform our understanding of the history of Liverpool?
The book transforms our understanding of the history of the city by demonstrating that it was a multicultural, multilingual place. This is a challenge both to the received history of ‘Scouse’ but also to the rather narrow conception of Liverpool’s history. In both cases, there is a tendency to view language and history in limited, primarily British terms, whereas what I argue in the book is that Liverpool’s role as a major port-city opened it up to a whole variety of languages and cultures. The evidence is there in the vocabulary of the place – many of its words were borrowed from the host of peoples who travelled to and through Liverpool in a sustained way over a considerable period of time: migrants, traders, soldiers and sailors, workers, refugees, entrepreneurs…they brought their languages with them from all over the world and some of some of their words stuck. So I hope that broader perspective will change how we think of both Liverpool’s history, but also British history more broadly.
Did you find any of the words or phrases particularly interesting etymologically?
Masses of them. ‘Scouse’, in the sense of ‘stew’ dates to the early eighteenth century in the phrase ‘lobscouse’ (‘scouse’ is coined towards the end of the century in Liverpool). It might be from the Latvian ‘labs’, ‘good’, ‘kauss’, ‘bowl’, although the Latvian could be from the English. As with all the best etymologies, we don’t know. ‘Bullamacow’ is interesting – it’s Fijian pidgin, and I like ‘jigger’, which is traceable to sixteenth century cant, ‘gygger’, ‘door’, possibly ultimately from the Welsh ‘gwddor’, ‘gate’. One of my favourites is ‘gobshite’, which may be from the Irish English ‘gobshell’, ‘a big spittle direct from the mouth’, from the Gaelic ‘gub’, ‘mouth, beak’ and ‘seile’, ‘spit’, though it might simply be a combination of ‘gob’ and ‘shite’.
Tony Crowley is Professor of English at the University of Leeds. Born and bred in Liverpool, he has taught at Oxford, Southampton and Manchester Universities. He was the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of the Humanities at Scripps College, California (2005–13), and is a Fellow of the English Association. His previous books include Scouse: A Social and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2012).
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