Review: The Liverpool English Dictionary

Tony Crowley: The Liverpool English Dictionary (Liverpool University Press)

Tony Crowley will be known to many as the author of ‘Scouse: A Social and Cultural History’, an illuminating and entertaining study of the language of Liverpool. The book explored the origins and history of the Scouse dialect, and also looked at the attitudes and responses people have when they hear a Liverpool accent. (The Merseysider magazine spoke to Crowley at the time of the book’s publication in 2012, and you can still read the interview online if you click HERE.)

‘Scouse’ was in many respects a truly groundbreaking work, and now he’s written another, the first scholarly dictionary of the language that has been used in Liverpool over the past century and a half. There have of course been collections of Liverpool words and phrases before, such as Fritz Spiegl’s ‘Lern Yerself Scouse’ books. But Crowley’s is the first attempt at a truly comprehensive glossary, using the same methodology as the Oxford English Dictionary. For each entry the book offers a definition, an account of the origin and history of the word or expression, and examples of its use from carefully cited sources.

As this suggests, another notable feature of the book is that its attitude towards the Scouse dialect is serious and respectful. Crowley observes in his Introduction that there’s often been a distinct element of social snobbery in written accounts of Liverpool English. His evidence for this includes a jaw-dropping quotation from the introduction to one of Fritz Spiegl’s books: ‘it is from the uneducated and in some respects uneducable stratum of Merseyside life that Scouse has arisen and developed. To a great extent it is the language of the ignorant.’

Crowley’s approach is more positive and celebratory, relishing the inventiveness and wit he has encountered in his research. He writes persuasively in the Introduction about how the character of Liverpudlians is reflected in the language that they use. Time and again, he notes, his dictionary offers up evidence of creativity, humour, irreverence towards authority and a carnivalesque sense of the absurd. On the very first page we get act soft and I’ll buy you a coalyard (‘directed to someone pretending to be less intelligent than they are’). Later there’s Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back (‘pretentiously deceptive’), It’ll be like a pig’s foot in the morning (‘said when someone has received a blow likely to result in bruising’) and marmalise (‘to beat comprehensively, destroy, punish, chastise’, an amalgam of ‘murder’ and ‘paralyse’ and popularized by Ken Dodd).

The book is also fascinating on the origins of the words and phrases that are included, even when Crowley admits that he can only speculate. Judy, meaning ‘woman, girlfriend, wife’, is probably a reference to Punch’s wife. Referring to Birkenhead as the one-eyed city is likely to derive either from a mocking description of the people of the town or from the simple fact that its name does indeed have one ‘i’.   

Given Liverpool’s history as a great sea port, to and from which people from all over the world (not to mention all corners of the British Isles) have travelled, it’s not surprising that the geographical birthplaces of the words and expressions cited are so far-flung. We find vocabulary taken from Hindi (dekko), Chinese (char), Danish (kip), French (barley) and numerous other languages.

Of course Liverpool’s not the only British city where you’ll come across these words, and Crowley acknowledges that a number of the usages he includes are not exclusive to the city. We get, for example, big-head, nutcase, skint, natter and to have the hump. All of these you can probably hear almost anywhere in Britain and none of them originated in Liverpool. We even get fed up, which may have started life as a colloquialism but is now so widely used it’s arguably Standard English. A problem with this approach is where do you draw the line? If fed up gets in, why not down in the dumps?

The reader might feel that some of the more common, non-Liverpool specific expressions could have been left out, but this is a minor gripe and doesn’t alter the fact that as a compendium of language that is distinctively Liverpudlian the book is surely unsurpassed. For Crowley it’s clearly been a labour of love: he’s been compiling his glossary, off and on, for 35 years. He can be proud of the result. As the nation’s best known expert on language, David Crystal – and like Crowley he’s a Liverpudlian – says on the book’s cover, ‘Scouse has never been more thoroughly explored.’

Tony Crowley’s Liverpool English Dictionary is published by Liverpool University Press