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Warren Maguire of the University of Edinburgh and me have been running a small online survey about traditional names for a certain creepy-crawly. This is a fascinating creature, not least because it has a bewilderingly diverse set of names — over 300 that we know of so far. This isn’t totally unheard of in historical surveys of traditional dialects of English, but is close to unique in the findings of 21st century dialect surveys: we know of pretty much no other creature (or indeed concept) with so much local dialect variation left. We do still need many more responses to our survey, so please help us out! You can take the survey at this link. Here, though, I wanted to give an interim report on what we’ve been finding — and explore a few of the historical stories that these words tell.

Woodlouse and all other words woody

The most common name across the UK and Ireland is woodlouse — this constitutes about 42% of responses in our survey and can straightforwardly be regarded as the standard form in England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. There are also a number of other names in the form wood- — all mostly found in England, but without any more specific clustering so far.

Slater and its relatives

The next most common name is slater, which is in the majority — and perhaps could be regarded as the standard — in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and represents 26% of all responses in the survey. There’s not too much related diversity in mainland Scotland and Ireland, but there are a profusion of related terms on Orkney: slate-o on Westray, slateroo and slatero in the western half of Orkney Mainland, and slaterick in the eastern half. In dialectology just as in biology, isolation can lead to especially diverse island ecologies!

The cheese names

However, most of the diversity of names for this creature is concentrated in the south of England, and another major group of names are those formed in cheese-cheese-log (almost exclusively found in Reading), cheesy-bob (Surrey, particularly Guildford) and cheesy-bug (across Surrey, north Kent and east London). These must be historically related, and a term which occurs a little further north in the survey, cheese-hog, looks like a potential earlier variant. However, when we turn to the historical literature, we find that these are just a subset of a larger number of related terms — and we can reconstruct a possible history which seems to match what we see on the map. The OED records forms of cheslop/cheslob (from 1530), cheslip (from 1552) and cheslock (from 1574, in that first attestation spelt chestlokes) which are connected with later cheese-bug (1634), cheese-log (1657) and chesil-bob (1881) (this last has also turned up in our survey). Of these, both cheslop and ches(t)lock have plausible earlier etymologies and so might be the older form. Either way, this suggests that of the forms we have in the current survey, cheese-log is the oldest, since it’s only a small step from cheese-lock or cheese-lob. We could run with the idea that ches(t)lock is the oldest of these forms, deriving it from earlier lockchester, and draw out a theory of how all these might be related. This would look something like the following (red ‘extinct’ forms are known from historical documents but not this survey, green ‘extant’ forms are found today, and blue ‘unattested’ forms seem likely to exist or have existed but we don’t have any direct evidence):

This is just one possibility — it might be that the original etymology has to do with Middle English loppe "spider; flea", or other similar ME forms (cf. Allen 1936) and so cheslop should be our starting point. but a nice feature of drawing out a possible history like this is that it seems to be reflected in the spatial sequence we see on the map, with cheese-log > cheese-bob > cheese-bug as we move from north-west to south-east.

A call for pigs?

Another major cluster of names are those in forms related to chucky-pig. Here, chucky- probably reflects a traditional call for pigs — and chucky-pig is also recorded as a dialectal children’s term for pigs. There’s quite a bit of variation within this group. Some of this variation is probably re-phonologisation of traditional phonetic variation (-pig vs. -peg), but other parts might represent variation in the ‘chucky’ call, and this displays clear spatial clustering: chucky-pig is found in Bath, Stroud, and to some extent Bristol, chookie-pig in Bath and Bristol, chuggy-pig throughout Devon and chicky-pig and chiggy-pig almost exclusively in north Devon. The clearly related term chiggy-wig is scattered around the south of England, perhaps with a concentration on the south coast. Barber's (2015) survey of past work on traditional Devon terms seems to suggest that this clear clustering might be a modern phenomenon — that all these and other terms might have had a much wider currency in the south-west at some point — but it’s hard to be sure from unsystematic studies.

A profusion of porcine names

Pig- terms more generally are very common — terms including pig, peg, (h)og, sow or grunt represent 19% (79) of the names recorded in the survey, with a further 12 terms clearly derived from some of these. Porcine names are common for terrestrial isopods across European languages, and it has been suggested (Allen 1935) that this is the relic of some now-lost common folklore connecting the two animals— although it might also just be that their rounded backs (sort of?) resemble pigs seen from above.

A few other pig- terms show very strong clusters in our survey: parson’s pig (and parson pig, pig parson) are found pretty much solely on the Isle of Man, and represent more than half of responses there; fat pig, is strongly clustered around Cork.

Similarly, we find some clusters of sow terms: grammer-sow (and the clearly derived forms gammer-sow, grammer-sale, grammer-sal) are basically dialect words of west Cornwall; penny-sow is largely a Pembrokeshire term; and sow-bug (and sal-bug) seem to turn up mostly in the connected region of Cambridgeshire-Essex-Hertfordshire.

Very small grandparents

Grammer-sow and its relatives point towards another interrelated group of names — those which incorporate a term for grandfather or grandmother. Grandfather terms are primarily a feature of Bristol, BANES and Somerset: grandfather and granddad are most typical of south and east Bristol; granfer (a local short form of ‘grandfather’) and daddy-granfer have wider currency in the historical county of Avon; granfer-gravy is nearly exclusive to Frome in Somerset while a cluster of terms along the lines of granfy-crooger are found throughout Somerset; granfer-grig, on the other hand, is mostly found in Devon, hinting at the fact that grandfather terms probably had a wider distribution historically — which is also suggested by Barber (2015).

Grandmother terms, on the other hand, are a simpler story. Granny-grey (perhaps related to granfer-gravy and granfer-grey?) is extremely common in Bridgend, Rhonda and Caerphilly, whereas granny-grunter represents a little under half of all responses on the Isle of Man. Granny-grey intersects with another common pattern — names containing the element grey — and an association between grey hair and this animal’s grey armour might offer a reason for the grandmother/grandfather groups.

Billy and friends

Our last south-western cluster represents far fewer respondents, and a more disconnected series of names which all seem to be related to Billy baker: we find other names with baker like curly-baker, other names with Billy (or Willy) like Billy-button, and forms that appear to be derived from these like belly-button. Billy-button is mostly found in Weymouth, belly-button in Bournemouth and Billy-baker itself in Yeovil.

These demonstrate a common phenomenon across the data: we can often see chains of names that are derived from one another, but these groups often then overlap with each other— here, it seems likely that curly-baker is related to Billy-baker but we do also find curly- names elsewhere in the country. This suggests we’re probably seeing names not just evolving independently but also influencing each other. It also nicely demonstrates the value of collecting spatial information: curly-baker has been reported just twice in this survey so far (alongside 7 other curly- terms which occur 12 times scattered across England and Ireland). On its own, this would be very little to go on — but given that both of the reported instances of curly-baker occur in or near Yeovil, the heart of Billy-baker, it becomes much more convincing that this is the result of curly- terms interacting with Billy-baker.

In terms of where these names come from, there’s no immediately clear story. English speakers have a habit of transferring personal names to plants and animals (think of dialectal terms like ‘Renny’ the fox, ‘Molly’ the hair, ‘Jenny-spinner’ for daddy-long-legs, and so on), and ‘Billy’ in particular is recorded in a host of plant and animals names in the English Dialect Dictionary — just not with ‘baker’ or referring specifically to terrestrial isopods.

Monkeys and millipedes

Moving back over to the south-east, another cluster of related terms that seem to offer hints at a history of evolution is found in the monkey-pea cluster. The most well-evidenced two terms are monkey-pea in east Kent and pea-bug in north and west Kent. Pea-monkey, although it’s only been recorded once thus far, might be the intermediate step between these two types. We also find one example of monkey-pede — this could be a creative extension of monkey-pea to make it sound more like ‘millipede’, but since we do find examples of woodlice being called millipedes (in this survey once in Kent and twice in Lancashire), and works on traditional dialect (e.g. Atkinson & Skeat 1876) suggest that these terms are all corruptions of ‘millipede’, monkey-pede could well be the earliest step in a chain like: millipede > monkey-pede > monkey-pea ( > monkey-peanut) > pea-monkey > pea-bug. That said, monkey pease is attested from 1682 and I haven’t found any really old attestations of monkey-pede. An alternative idea is that monkey-pea is from earlier monk’s peas — we find monkes pease in English in 1657, and terms with monk crop up in other European languages like Norwegian munkelus ‘monk-louse’.

Borrowed monikers

The transfer of names from other creepy-crawlies is a common source of isopod-names and doesn’t apply only to millipedes. In fact, the most frequent of these is the borrowing of names from dermapteraearwig, eary-wig, forky-tailer, forky-goller.

These are very widely distributed across the map, suggesting that this name-swapping is something which has happened many times independently rather than being a one-off event that then spread. However, in spite of the fact that these names don’t all form a cluster together — and confirming that this really is their correct origin story — the distributions we see in this map match those known for local dermaptera names: eary-wig as a name for dermaptera is most characteristic of the eastern Central Belt and this is also the main place it turns up as a name for terrestrial isopods; forky-goller and forky-taily are generally names for dermaptera found in west Scotland, and so too as names here.

Some oddities

Finally, we have a couple more groups of names with quite diffuse distributions. Leather-jacket (and its rarer derivatives(?) bomber-jacket and grandfather’s jacket) is spread across eastern England. A variety of different names in -back are found mostly in the North-West of England. These -back names are mostly so poorly-evidenced that we might discard them on the basis that it’s impossible to tell whether they’re family names, joke responses, or names with a wider dialectal basis that are simply very rare — but the fact that they seem clustered (and that there are six different names in this form) suggests the latter.

The big picture

Many other names have been submitted to our survey — and even more are recorded in historical works but haven’t yet turned up in modern-day data. However, in spite of this great diversity, there’s ample reason to think that these are mostly disappearing. The chart below shows the frequency of some of these names by respondent year-of-birth: in short, the younger are you, the more likely you are to say woodlouse. The largest part of this effect comes from a drop-off in the proportion of people saying slater (and related names), but other names seem to be dropping in frequency too. In the broader context of dialectology, this isn’t surprising — indeed, the surprising thing is quite how well the diversity of isopod names is doing, given that we know that dialect words in general are disappearing very rapidly. So, finding that when we drill down into the data it appears that terrestrial isopod names are following the general trend towards standardisation is probably what we should expect. In this light, it’s interesting that many of the non-standard terms we’ve seen are very strongly concentrated in specific towns — like Billy-baker in Yeovil or cheese-log in Reading — which stand out as isolated blobs on the map with woodlouse in between. This is particularly striking where related terms which we can assume must once have had continuous distributions are now split up into discontinuous patches by woodlouse — as in the case of the chucky-pig names. This isn’t what the historical literature describes, and suggests that these hotspots are really the remaining islands in a rising tide of the woodlouse — and that we can expect them to be submerged too, given time.

Help us out!

Are any of these names familiar? Perhaps you say something completely different? Either way, please do fill in the survey and share it with your friends and family! We’re pretty sure that there are many other terms out there that we have yet to document — and whether you say something totally unique, or one of the most common names of all, your answer will really help us better understand what’s going on! There are also hints of interesting stories about these names in other English-speaking countries — but we don’t yet have enough respondents outside the UK and Republic of Ireland to tell them, so feel welcome to share and respond and wherever you are in the world.