Tony Crowley, Liverpool. A Memoir of Words, Liverpool University Press, 2023, 224pp., £20. ISBN 978-1-83764-438-4
Liverpool. A Memoir of Words is both a thought-provoking and a delightfully engaging sequel to Tony Crowley’s earlier The Liverpool English Dictionary (2017) which was reviewed in the Society’s Spring 2018 newsletter. Many members will also remember his talk to the Society concerning Liverpool English, a report of which can be found in the Summer 2019 newsletter (LHS website under Publications) and which is relevant to this synopsis.
After a valuable scene-setting Introduction, A Memoir comprises 26 chapters with titles from Ace to Z-Cars, passing via Dekko, Jigger, Ollies, Rozzer, and the rest of the alphabet, and in which each title word is ‘a starting point on a journey through personal, social and linguistic history’. If you are Liverpool born and bred, you perhaps have already paused to think what those chapter titles mean to you, and are wondering what words the author may have chosen as the starting points for other chapters.
Ace, in its imported American 20th century meaning, takes the reader to the observation that, as the main British transatlantic port from the mid-18th century, ‘American English was one of the most important historical influences in the formation of the city’s vernacular’, and from there to some of Tony’s many memories (anti-American sentiment at Oxford University, ‘cultural snobbery of the most condescending sort, sometimes masquerading as political critique’, and the subsequent opportunity to spend time in America and, eventually, to dual nationality). Bommie, is full of delightful childhood memories of his home at the Dingle, in a street built in the 1850s and demolished in the 1970s (‘the city council completing the work that the Luftwaffe had begun’) and includes an analysis of the origin of the word bonfire.
Following Cash, chapter 4, Dekko, (‘give us a dekko’) is shown to be of Hindi origin and an example of ‘Liverpool as an important military staging post… as ‘the gateway to Empire’… evidence that linguistic borders are porous… the linguistic embodiment of colonial history’. In Easy Six, Tony explores the evidence for the suggestion ‘that the docks were in fact a creative source of Liverpool English’ (with over a page of fascinating examples) whilst questioning the claim for the docks as being ‘the origin and last bastion of Scouse’.
Footy (‘invented in Liverpool – I mean ask any Liverpudlian’), Gob**ite (‘The art of delivering and taking an insult was, and remains, an important aspect of Liverpudlian social life’) and Hard, takes us to chapter 9, Ippies and Ozzies (the latter being hospitals) as examples of the Liverpool tendency to use plazzymorphs (Tony’s preferred technical term for ‘a stylistic feature to signal identity’) with another page and a half of wonderful examples (this reviewer’s first car was a moggy minor which sat outside his parent’s Eggy home), whilst chapter 10 covers words and stories concerning alleyways. Chapters 11 (what other word beginning with K could rival a title for a story about an Anfield club?), 12 and 13 (names of a city and a river: go on, have a guess), lead to chapter 14, Nark (both a homophone and a homograph: ‘that nark was in a nark and that made him have a nark with that nark’).
Chapter 15 introduces the game of marbles with its own specialised vocabulary, chapter 16 covers ‘the sectarian divide’, chapter 17 examines sex and sexuality, including the ‘plethora of terms for coition’, whilst Rozzer, with its ‘panoply of terms for the police’ notes that, although ‘crime is integral to newspapers’ (open any edition of the Echo!), ‘in fact, Liverpool is statistically a lot safer than London’. Scouse, with its various meanings, leads to Togs, and then to Us, which is a splendid chapter with its critique of ‘prescriptivism in the guise of what linguists self-flatteringly call descriptivism’ (the 1989 Oxford English Dictionary’s stated choice of pronunciation was the ‘educated speech of southern England (The so-called “Received Standard”)’ (OED wording) with ‘non-standard’ becoming regarded as ‘sub-standard’).
Tony concludes his chapters with 22, Vaults (concerning pubs and drinking), 23 (‘Perhaps the Liverpudlian’s greatest fear is being taken for a woollyback’), 24, Xy (the one in which he was stumped to find a Liverpool English word), 25, Yonks, with its list of words and phrases whose origins have proved difficult to explain, and 26, the fictional call-sign of the TV police series, and a chapter with other examples of the growing ‘confidence in the Liverpool vernacular’.
Liverpool. A Memoir of Words with its selection of Liverpool English is a very important analysis of the politics of language and the ‘hierarchy of speech… which continues to exercise a deep and pernicious influence in British cultural life’. But perhaps what I personally value most from the book is Tony’s account of his upbringing – often moving, frequently humorous, occasionally exciting and dangerous – and how different it was to mine, born and brought up a matter of only a mile further south off Aigburth Road. And for Tony’s insights into the words and sounds and memories of his other world, so close and yet so far away, I am truly grateful. It’s an ace book and I shall treasure it.
Graham Jones (author of Walking on Water Street)
Liverpool University Press is offering a 25% discount to LHS members. Please email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org who will [lace your order at £15.00.