Gaskell House Blogs

Are you nesh?

20th January 2018
in blog

It all started with a conversation that I had with another volunteer on a chilly winter’s morning. As I sat there wrapped with the throw from the chaise lounge on my lap (shhh, don’t tell) and with my winter coat draped over my shoulders, said volunteer (who, at her request, shall not be named) called me “nesh”. Being a typical Southerner only familiar with cockney rhyming slang, I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about. I knew that we had a music box that played Lancastrian folk songs in William’s study, but aside from that I hadn’t heard much about it. As someone who studied languages at university I was intrigued, so, of course, I went to Google to investigate. As the other volunteer had said, nesh means “unusually susceptible to cold weather” and according to an online etymology website its roots stem from the Old English word hnesce (how on earth that spelling is pronounced is beyond me) which is defined as “weak, feeble or infirm”- how rude!

During my research I stumbled across the British Library’s “Evolving English Wordbank” and discovered that discovered that nesh had been added to it in 2011. The “Evolving English Wordbank” seeks to preserve and celebrate local dialects and slang across the United Kingdom. This collection is comprised of 428 recordings of English slang, which is both fascinating and hilarious in equal measure. I’ll leave a link to the collection here so you yourself can discover other marvellous terms like ‘bobby-dazzler’ and discover whether you qualify as a ‘complete barmpot’. 

Interestingly, a recording of one woman from North Staffordshire referred to the weather-specific meaning of the word nesh : “we use the word to mean you feel the cold easily”
Apparently the term is often met with confusion when mentioned amongst members of the South Staffordshire population, and the lady believed that the term was unique to the town of Leak where she grew up. Meanwhile a woman from Nottingham described the word as “local to Nottingham” and defined nesh as “being a bit whingey” and “a bit weedy”, along with the well-established notion that said nesh person is sensitive to the cold.

The fact that the use of the term seemed widespread, yet also city or county specific, mystified me, so I popped over to the all-knowing encyclopedia of the internet Wikipedia for some answers (something I never admitted to doing when writing university essays but it’s fine for a blog, right?) According to Wikipedia: “Usage has been recorded in Staffordshire, the East Midlands, Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Shropshire” So it seemed that the term was midlands and yorkshire specific, though despite going to university in Sheffield for 4 years I must admit I never came across the term!

After scouring the Wikipedia page a little further I found this: “The earliest traceable use in modern English, in literature, was in Mary Barton , written by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1848”
After all that searching and wondering, the secret to the word’s written origin was right in front of our noses- and, funnily enough, the volunteer who had called me nesh in the first place had no idea! We came to the conclusion that we clearly must have some sort of mystical, spiritual connection with Elizabeth and her wise words.

Unfortunately in the past, the words and language that people used often denoted their class, and this linguistic class divide was particularly apparent to snooty Victorians whilst Elizabeth was living in Manchester. Unlike Charles Dickens (sorry to any Charles lovers out there), Elizabeth dignified local dialect by giving her working class characters a voice. As far as we know, the first written mention of the word nesh in Mary Barton , is spoken by the character John Barton, who says to Mrs Wilson:

“Sit you down here; the grass is well nigh dry by this time; and you’re neither of you nesh folk about taking cold.” Apparently William had a keen interest in linguistics and, as someone who championed the education of working class citizens, it should come as no surprise that he was very familiar with the Lancashire dialect himself. During his lifetime he gave lectures on dialect and his own notes on the subject can be found in the edition of Mary Barton published in 1854.

According to Philip, another Sunday volunteer, many editions of Elizabeth’s literature came with asterixes next to words of Lancashire dialect, with an explanation of their meaning at the bottom of their page, which helped to break down the long-standing linguistic barriers between ordinary citizens and the nobility.

Elizabeth, unbeknownst to me, was a pioneer of abolishing language prejudice, which was an important part of representing Manchester’s working class in her novels. She was one of the first writers to celebrate language diversity by allowing these characters to speak authentically in their own dialect.

If you want to here some songs sung in the Lancashire dialect, come and have a listen to the music box in William’s study.

And if you want to explore the topic further y ou can find the answers to the Lancashire dialect quiz, complete with definitions, here on our website:
We also have copies of Mary Barton available in our shop

This blog post was written by Megan Christo, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House


If you enjoyed this blog you might enjoy…

Lancashire Dialect Quiz and Answers
The Joy of Volunteering
The Perks of Volunteering

The interruptions of home life are never ending

Elizabeth Gaskell 1863