Pitmatic: The Language of the Northern Coalfields
Pitmatic is a local dialect used by mining communities in the counties of Northumberland and Durham in North East England. Pitmatic was spoken throughout the Great Northern Coalfield, from Ashington in Northumberland to Fishburn in County Durham. Formed from the specialised terms used by mineworkers in the local coal pits, it developed as a separate dialect from Northumbrian and Geordie. For example, in Northumberland the word Cuddy is an abbreviation of the name Cuthbert but in Durham Pitmatic cuddy denotes a pit pony. With the closure of the area's deep mines pitmatic is dying out. However, it can still be detected amongst elderly populations in more rural areas.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary 'pitmatic' was first used in the late 19th century in the sense of 'the skill or craft of mining', but was soon applied to the distinctive patterns of speech among miners:
‘After a few minutes delay in the overman's cabin, thronged with men talking an unintelligible language, known, I was informed, as Pitmatic, we took our places in one of a long train of tubs, which, on a signal being given, started for the heart of the mine.’ (The Times 21 Aug 1885)
When the author J.B.Priestley visited County Durham in 1934 he observed that:
“the local miners have a curious lingo of their own, which they call ‘pitmatik’. It is, you might say, a dialect within a dialect, for it is used only by the pitmen when they are talking among themselves. When the pitmen are exchanging stories of colliery life, usually very grim stories, they do it in 'pitmatik', which is Scandinavian in origin, far nearer to the Norse than the ordinery Durham dialect. It should be an excellent medium for grim tales of accidents far undergroud, the sagas of the deep pits..." (An English Journey)
Edward-Street, Norman Cornish
Surviving pitmatic words represent a rich seam in the history of English dialect. So put on your pit hoggers and enjoy these obscure but vibrant words from a vanishing culture:
bait - a packed meal.
baitpoke - a bag to carry the meal in.
blogged up - a pipe stopped up with dirt.
bonny gan on - serious trouble.
brat - a black inferior sort of coal.
bray - to beat or punish. "you cannot bray him back with a mell" (large hammer)
canch - the stone below the thill or floor of a narrow coal seam that has to be removed as coal-getting proceeds.
carvinarce - a smooth backed fossil easily dislodged.
catheid - a nodule of iron ore found in coal seams.
clag - to stick.
clarts - mud.
dab-hand - a capable or efficient worker.
dollyshutting - blasting down coal without undercutting.
fash - trouble.
fast jenkin : a bordway driven in the middle of a pillar.
femmer - weak or delicate.
fettle - to repair or mend.
flayed - frightened.
forbye - besides.
for-fairs - no trickery or underhand work.
fullick - a blow with great force.
fullen - full tub.
gis-a-low - give me a light.
glinters - curved sails to guide a rope on to a sheeve.
graithe - to make ready or repair.
grove - a space in a seam from which coal has been taken.
hacky - dirty or filthy.
hinny - a term of endearment.
hitch - a fault in the strata.
hoggers - shorts miners wear in the pit.
howk - to dig or scoup out, or punish.
hoy - to throw.
keeker : surface foreman who deals with the coal.
ket - filth or rubbish.
kibble - a large iron bucket used in sinking operations, also a small low tub with open end.
kink - a twist in a coil of rope that would damage it if pulled tight.
kip - the highest point on the rollyway where the tubs are detatched.
marra - when two men work together each calls the other his marra, meaning equal.
mell - a large wood or iron hammer.
met - a measurement marked on a stick.
midgey - open fronted naked flame lantern.
mizzled-off - gone away.
powder-reek - smoke caused by firing a short in the pit.
progley - prickly.
rammel - stone that gets mixed with the coal in the pit.
rive - to tear.
roven - torn.
scapipen - getting coal without blasting.
scumfish - to suffocate.
shine a low - shine a light.
skeets - guides for the cages in a pit shaft.
slush hewer - a hard working coal hewer.
smart-money - compensation.
snore holes - holes in the strainer that make a snoring noise when the sump is drained.
spangued out - a prop forced out by pressure.
spelk - a splinter of wood that has stuck into the skin, also a small person.
stythe - bad air.
swalley - a dip or hollow on a roadway.
tageing - a hard fatiguing time or job.
tarry towt - a tarry rope.
tewed - fatigued as "it's been a tewing job".
tokens - pitmen's tallies.
tommy hack - a combined hammer and chisel ended pick used by rolleywaymen.
wedger - anything large or outsize.
whimsey - a turntable from which a rope is uncoiled.
yard-wand - deputy' s stick measuring one yard.
yebbel - able.
The County Durham comedian Bobbie Thompson famously used pitmatic in his act, as well as speaking with an authentic local accent:
The leading authority on North East dialects was Dr. Bill Griffiths, an academic based at Northumbria University. Sadly, Bill died several years ago, but his pioneering research made a great contributiob to our knowledge of North East England. Bill's publications include:
Dictionary of North-East Dialect, Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University Press, 2004).
Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coalfields, Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University Press, 2007).