BBC and National Poetry Day to celebrate listeners' local words

Cheeselog was chosen by BBC Radio Berkshire listeners. 

Cheeselog was chosen by BBC Radio Berkshire listeners. 

Cheeselog (a woodlouse), to geg in (to butt in) and fam (meaning a familiar form of address for a friend) are among the distinctive local words that will be immortalised in 12 specially commissioned poems for this year’s National Poetry Day.  

These examples of regional dialect are among hundreds nominated by BBC Local Radio listeners as part of the #freetheword project, which takes its cue from National Poetry Day’s 2017 theme - freedom. A partnership between BBC English Regions, National Poetry Day and the Oxford English Dictionary, #freetheword has been searching for unrecorded words used in everyday speech in different locations across the country.

12 poets, including spoken word artist Holly McNish and Forward Prize-winner Liz Berry, have now each chosen a word from a shortlist drawn up by experts at the Oxford English Dictionary. Each word represents a different BBC English region and illuminates its culture, habits and geography in unexpected ways: they include resonant phrases for creepy-crawlies, terms describing a particular time or place, words of complaint or praise, all of which identify their users immediately as belonging to a distinct community.

The poets, all with a link to the region they are writing for, will perform their finished poems for broadcast on the BBC on National Poetry Day on Thursday 28 September. Additionally, a poem featuring all 12 words will be performed by 19-year-old poet and spoken word artist Isaiah Hull as part of a major new poetry festival, Contains Strong Language, produced by the BBC in partnership with Hull UK City of Culture 2017, Hull City Council, Humber Mouth, National Poetry Day and a number of poetry organisations.  The individual words will also be displayed at locations around the city – using templates created by Jackie Goodman, Associate Dean, Hull School of Art and Design, with a special spray paint visible only when it rains.

Hollie McNish, one of 12 local poets commissioned to write poetry inspired by local words. Credit Paul Newbon

Hollie McNish, one of 12 local poets commissioned to write poetry inspired by local words. Credit Paul Newbon

Among the word selections are cheeselog, nominated by BBC Radio Berkshire listeners, and bobowler from the West Midlands – meaning a woodlouse and large moth, respectively – which have been adopted as the subjects of new poems by Reading-born Hollie McNish and the Black Country’s Liz Berry.

“The #freetheword project has kicked off a lively nationwide conversation about the poetry locked away in distinctive local words: for the millions involved, National Poetry Day on September 28 will be an expression of local, as well as national, pride. In illuminating regional phrases chosen by listeners and the OED, these contemporary poets add richness, humour and beauty to our sense of ourselves as a nation.”
— Susannah Herbert, Executive Director, National Poetry Day

BBC Radio Humberside listeners, and their poet-in-residence Dean Wilson chose to celebrate a didlum (a community savings scheme).

Elsewhere, characteristically local words for universal habits won out. BBC Radio Cumbria listeners have nominated to twine (to complain) for their local poet, Cumbrian-born Kate Hale, whilst BBC Radio Merseyside listeners wanted Liverpudlian poet Chris McCabe to write a poem featuring to geg in (to butt in).

“We were inundated with suggestions of great local words from our listeners. Not only will the 12 chosen words make fantastic poems by some of the country’s finest contemporary poets, they’ll generate much debate and discussion across BBC Local Radio. We’re also delighted that we’re building on the success of last year’s #BBCLocalpoets initiative with another rewarding partnership with National Poetry Day.”
— James Stewart, Editor GNS Programmes for BBC English Regions

BBC Radio Leicester listeners championed mardy (or moody) for poetry slammer Toby Campion, while BBC Radio Bristol asked poet, burlesque artist, and writer Vanessa Kisuule to get creative with gurt (great or very) and BBC Radio Suffolk listeners chose on the huh (lopsided, wonky) for local poet Rebecca Watts.

BBC Radio Leeds poet, Vidyan Ravinthiran, will take a poetic walk down a ginnel (alleyway), which is known by BBC Sussex listeners and their poet, James Brookes, as a twitten.

“Our local words and expressions are very much part of an oral tradition, and printed records are often hard to find. This is why the collaboration between Oxford Dictionaries and National Poetry Day is so exciting: it will shine a light into a lexicon that’s too often overlooked. The shortlist of words reflects some of the verve and vibrancy of our local tongues. I’m probably not allowed to be biased, but Devon’s ‘dimpsy’ has long been a favourite of mine.”
— Susie Dent, broadcaster and lexicograhper

BBC Radio Devon’s listeners chose an evocative word for twilightdimpsy - for local poet Chrissy Williams and BBC London is working with the capital’s first Young People’s Laureate Caleb Femi who has fam, a familiar form of address for a friend which has its origins in African-American hip-hop and is now spoken widely by London’s youth, to inspire his poem. 

“We at the OED were delighted at the number of local words that were suggested for this campaign, underlining how the kind of crowdsourcing that OED pioneered (long before the word crowdsourcing existed) remains a vital part of the dictionary’s work. Not only were we reminded of the breadth and vitality of the country’s dialects, but we were also able to identify and research a large number of new words for future inclusion in the OED, as well as gain valuable information about the currency of local words included in the first edition of the dictionary. Indeed, all the chosen words not currently in the OED will be drafted in the coming months.”
— Eleanor Maier, Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

The #Freetheword selections in full are:

  • Leeds - Vidyan Ravinthiran - GINNEL (an alleyway)
  • Humberside - Dean Wilson - DIDLUM (a community savings scheme)
  • WM (Birmingham) - Liz Berry - BOBOWLER (a large moth)
  • Sussex - James Brookes - TWITTEN (an alleyway)
  • Berkshire - Hollie McNish - CHEESELOG (a woodlouse)
  • Cumbria - Katie Hale - TO TWINE (to complain)
  • Merseyside - Chris McCabe - TO GEG IN (to butt in)
  • Suffolk - Rebecca Watts - ON THE HUH (lopsided, wonky)
  • Devon - Chrissy Williams - DIMPSY (twilight)
  • Leicester – Toby Campion – MARDY (moody)
  • Bristol – Vanessa Kisuule – GURT (great or very)
  • London – Caleb Femi – FAM (a familiar form of address for a friend)

Read the first in a series of blog posts exploring each of the words selected from OED Associate Editor, Eleanor Maier:

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