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Barnsley poet Ian McMilllan to launch historic dictionary of long-lost words of Yorkshire

Posted on 15 November 2018

Would you know how to spot a squib, catch the Niffler or use the bark of a Wiggentree? For “Potterheads” the answer will be a resounding yes.

Historian Dr George Redmonds compiled the dictionary during a lifetime’s work with Yorkshire archives.

A new dictionary suggests the origins of these words - familiar to Harry Potter fans the world over – were once in common parlance in God’s Own County.

The historic dictionary of Yorkshire language from around 1100 to 1800 was compiled by historian Dr George Redmonds during a lifetime’s work with Yorkshire archives. 

Other weird and wonderful words and phrases include a Smoot - a small hole at the base of a hedge which hares pass through; and a Day-gate - a 15th-century word for sunset.

Mythology and folklore

Alexandra Medcalf, editor of the dictionary and project archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, said: “J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter vocabulary’ is famously steeped in mythology and folklore and she is known to use dialect terms in her work - for example, Dumbledore is a West Country word for bumblebee. It seems plausible that old Yorkshire terms form part of the source of squibs, the Wiggentree and the Niffler.”

Tickets have gone live for the launch of the dictionary, which will take place on the 11 January 2019 to coincide with its publication online. A hard copy will be released later in the year.

The launch event will feature a talk from writer, broadcaster and presenter of BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, Ian McMillan.

Ian McMillan. Image credit: Turning Images.

Medieval Yorkshire

There will also be a screening of a video put together by University of York students, which uses words from the dictionary to bring medieval Yorkshire’s farms, pubs, homes and Wars-of-the-Roses battlefields to life.

The words include:

  • Squib: In the time of Guy Fawkes, who was born in York in 1570, a firework was known as a “squib” in the Yorkshire region. In the Harry Potter books, Rowling uses the word “squib” to refer to magic-born people who can’t use magic – perhaps this is derived from the associated phrase “a damp squib” – a firework which can’t go off.
  • Nifle: The dictionary also records the verb to “nifle”, which meant to steal trifling objects, or objects of little value. It cites court records of an individual found guilty of “nifling” at Barnby Dunn in 1755. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Niffler is a creature with a penchant for stealing shiny trinkets. 
  • Wiggen: The dictionary records this as an old Yorkshire word for the mountain ash or rowan tree. It was considered to protect people from evil spirits and historical sources from witchcraft trials in Yorkshire refer to people being protected by it. In 1782, an Ecclesfield man’s diary also recorded an attack of the ague (fever), from which he recovered after six days “Under Bark of Wiggin”. In Harry Potter, the bark of the Wiggentree is used in Potion-making (Wiggenweld Potion). Anyone who touches the trunk of one of these trees will be protected from Dark Creatures as long as they are doing so.
  • Smoot: A small hole at the base of a hedge which hares pass through.
  • Day-gate: A 15th-century word for sunset
  • Winter hedge: An old word for a clothes horse. This comes from an old practice of hanging clothes on a hedge to dry in summer, but when it got too cold people had to use a wooden rack indoors.

The dictionary is edited and produced by the Borthwick Institute at the University of York and builds on the work of Dr Redmonds, who amassed a catalogue of thousands of old Yorkshire terms and phrases over 60 years, carefully recorded on index cards, complete with a definition and source references.

Unique expressions

The dictionary will offer an insight into how Yorkshire developed its regional language with influences from Iceland, Scotland, the Low Countries, France and Viking Scandinavia.

Medcalf added: “The appearance of now-forgotten language and dialect in historical sources can help plot the movement of people and industries in the Yorkshire region over time – with certain words appearing along trade routes and being brought in by industry and influxes of migrants. The dictionary highlights how language is always evolving. Words come in and out of use and everywhere has its own unqiue expressions.


“We hope the dictionary provides a framework for other regions to develop their own dictionary projects, as it would be really interesting to build a complete picture of the movement of old words and language around the UK. Perhaps we could even see a revival of some of the phrases!”

Tickets for the free launch event at the Ron Cooke Hub, University of York, from 7 pm to 8.45 pm on Friday 11 January, 2019, are available via:

The Dictionary is published with the help of a grant from the Marc Fitch Fund, in memory of Professor David Hey, Dr Redmonds’ lifelong friend and collaborator, and in partnership with the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society.

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