Dialects and sayings from yesteryear

An example of Shank's pony
An example of Shank's pony

Local historian Keith Johnson looks at the phrases and sayings Leythers used in yesteryear...

We, as Leythers, had almost a language of our own back in time.

There were many sayings and words that if spoken ten miles away would seem a foreign language. This is not as noticeable nowadays with the influx of people from outside our district plus the lack of labour-intensive workplaces and local pubs that thrived in the 1940s and 50s.

This piece is not intended to replicate the brilliant “Lanky spoken here” but to dissect, where possible, some of the phrases and try to explain how they came about.

“Ey up”– that phrase in itself has more than one meaning, my parents used it to tell me to move out of the way, a shortened form of excuse me, some sites give it as a greeting of “how are you” so we can now see the task in front of us but we will try. “Yon mon couldn’t stop a pig in an alley” referring to some bow-legged individual. This stems back to the Victorian times when people literally kept pigs in the back yards/gardens of the terraced houses, which had narrow alleys at the back, also referred to as “ginnels”, “snickets”, “snickleway” or “passage”.

The inference was also that lots of children, in particular, had bandy/bow legs due to lack of vitamins which contributed to rickets, bandiness being a symptom.

“Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,” “Down sheet lane and round blanket corner” are self-explanatory of sending children to bed but where does “up the dancers” come from?

Some explanations give it as rhyming slang, Fred Astaires meaning stairs, but it is found in documents as far back as 1670, which predates cockney rhyming slang and certainly Fred Astaire.

We also find some of these old sayings refer to horses; here we have a few that many will recall. “A nods as good as a wink to a blind horse” meaning a suggestion is understood and any further subtle indication is not


“A man on a flying horse won’t notice,” is often said when something made or manufactured isn’t perfect but is deemed acceptable. Probably the least well known explanation is to the statement “Shank’s pony” usually when a person is asked how are you getting somewhere, the reply being “Shank’s pony,” walking there being the answer, this is another phrase with its origin in the 19th century.

A pony-drawn lawnmower manufactured by Alexander Shanks & Co in Arbroath, Scotland, needed a man to guide the mower who would, before a seated version was made, walk behind, as our picture shows.

These machines were used to cut the grass on the golf courses of the day, which quite obviously amounted to a lot of walking and as horses were the main method of transport for long distances the ponies pulling Shanks machines being unmounted, became a term for walking.

Another equine inspired phrase, “After the lord mayor’s show” meaning after a good happening something of a let-down or lesser event would occur, originally the full saying was, “After the lord mayor’s show followed the muck cart” indicting the clearing up of the droppings indeed something much less spectacular than the Lord Mayor’s procession.

One extremely local saying involving one of our four legged friends is, “Am that clempt ah could eyt a buttered donkey”, “clempt” being hungry, the second part is self-explanatory.

This leads us to some more foody phrases found locally, my father-in-law and his contemporaries always referred to Thursday back in the 1930s/40s, being the day before pay day and the cupboards being almost empty as “spinners beef day and a par ut pantry door fer pudding”, spinners beef being cheese, something that miners had as a snack, not generally as a meal, the inference being cotton spinners did not need as substantial meals as the miners.

I have to assume it was probably meant to be a tongue in cheek statement but never the less it was a statement he often quoted.

Another from the same era was, “Yon mons pots fer rags” implying someone as being not very clever or bright, it stemmed from someone swapping pots for rags with the rag and bone man instead of the other way round when rag men gave pots for a quantity of rags.

This of course was before the rag men gave donkey stones , which people would scrub there front door steps with. Whilst we are speaking of rag men, a term I heard regularly from working men of all trades, usually on a Monday morning when on their way to work, “I’m as rough as a rag tatters jacket” or in some cases “as rough as a rag tatters trmpet” generally meaning they had over imbibed during the weekend.

When asking as a child how long something would be, my mother always answered “two shakes of a lamb’s tale” in other words like a lambs tale, very quickly. This is a statement borne out by the nuclear scientists who invented the atom bomb when needing a term for nanoseconds they adopted the term “shake” as a measurement of time, I do need to get out more!

Another well-known local saying, “Popped his/ her clogs” comes again from the 19th century. “Pop” being a terminology used for pawning goods that were not needed, if a miner or spinner pawned their clogs it usually meant the family had done it, as the owner of the clogs had gone to meet their maker and his clogs were no longer needed, from this the terminology became a dialect phrase for death.

Finally we look at some terms that are in some cases still in universal use. A lady showing her underskirt would be told she was “slating”, “snowing down south” or “Charlie’s dead” the last one is a new one on me. “You make a better door than a window,” “you were not made at Pilkingtons”, when stood in front of the telly, the second one referring to Pilkingtons glassmakers in St Helens.

“Its dark o’er Bill’s mothers” has many explanations; impending bad weather being one, another is referring to the end of WW1 when the armistice was due to be signed and the reference was made to Kaiser Bill’s homeland (Germany) and the forthcoming deprivations the country was going to suffer, due to the reparations being imposed on them by the allies.

A couple of local ones that still make me chuckle are, “He’s a lip like the step ont corporation bus” is he’s sulking. Lastly, “He con walk undert thesole wi a tall hat on,” (the sole being the fire bottom in a coal fire) – a braggart or despicable person of low morals, is the best description I can offer on that one.

There are of course hundreds of local dialect sayings, lots of them lost in the mists of time, due to the fact socialising in pubs and social clubs is declining and communicating is done on a phone, people don’t speak to each other anymore.

It’s a message or a tweet these days so finally, in the time honoured parting statement locally, “Ahl si thi.”