Daily Archives: February 4, 2013


The work of word country, the careful crop-tending, extracting the fruits of the fertile soil of language, is not all large-scale operations for production in the millions or myriads or even thousands. Off in little patches here and there, small enclosures, window gardens and dooryards and suburban corners and rural nooks, dedicated individuals cultivate heirloom words, lexemes odd and quaint – to our eyes – but bearing flavours that make the tongue tingle afresh, ways of seeing and saying and hearing that many a logophile pines for.

Consider this one here: she has a little plot in which she keeps alive, for her enjoyment and in the hopes of repropagation, a few quaint and curious fruits of the English tongue, now found – when at all – in places peripheral and rural and mainly in books that already have the dusty-honey smell of aging paper. Today she has just added a new word, chelp, to the plot, next to her cherished crop of pingle.

Pingle! Such a fantastic fruit! It has conflicting tastes, of tingly-scented pines and kindling in inglenooks and of pinguid piglets and processed potato chips (Pringles, to be precise) and perhaps a soft pickle. Is pingle one word? Two? Three? Four? Five? When you taste it on your tongue, do you know what its place in your menu will be? It is a noun – it is three nouns: one is a struggle; one is a small enclosed piece of land; one is a small, long-handled pan or pot – and it is a verb, no, two verbs: one, used by Scots, is for exerting, struggling, contending; the other, used by Englishmen, is for picking at one’s food. So has it ever been, if you ask a Scot.

What do you do when you have a crop of words that look the same but have such different senses? They cleave together with the form; would you cleave them apart? The source is uncertain and may be multiple, but the sound and letters are all the same; drop it one place and it carries one savour, drop it another and it carries another. And it has such a hearty feel on the tongue – the old-home crisp pop of aspirated /p/, a quick high front vowel, then it sticks softly in the back, hardens next, and rolls off the tip of the tongue in a liquid syllable.

Our gardener loves this taste. She faces the challenge of keeping the word alive: it is a struggle, an exertion, a contention with nature in her little gated patch. If it bears fruit, it may be handed over to a careful cook who will give it a delicate turn in a little long-handled pan and serve it to give a special relish to a plate of language, only hoping that the diner will not pick at it and leave half behind. Oh, to pingle this pingle of pingle in her pingle, that it may pass through the pingle and not be pingled!

Thank you to Kathleen Lynch, word gardener, for mentioning pingle yesterday.


Visual: This word chelp is a short word with two arms stuck up and one foot stuck down. It has a bump sticking out at either side and a crossed circle (e) in the middle. It has an interesting trend towards – or away from – symmetry. Of course, the first thing you’re likely to see when you look at it is help.

In the mouth: It seems to stay at the front of the mouth: the voiceless affricate on the tip of the tongue, the mid-front vowel, the tongue-tip liquid, and then the stop on the lips to finish it. But rewind to that liquid: if you’re like most native English speakers, your tongue is actually shaped like a banana, the tip up but the middle down and the back curved back up. Oh, and yes, by the way, that ch is pronounced the usual way. This is not “kelp” or “c-help.”

Etymology: Probably a blend of chirp and yelp, but the word is not common or important enough to provoke much research, it seems, and it’s what Oxford calls “dialect” (as if all varieties of a language, even the most esteemed, weren’t dialects – which they are).

Collocations: This word is a verb, but there are citations with your chelp and thy chelp. One thing nearly all the citations have in common: the act of chelping is attributed to another person, most often (among the small sample Oxford gives) the person being addressed. Wordsworth: “Hold your chelp!” D.H. Lawrence: “I’ll stand no more of your chelp.” Keith Waterhouse: “Don’t go chelping back at her like you chelp at me.”

Overtones: It’s not a high-toned word; it seems to be something you put in the mouth of a country character – perhaps one of the help. It has echoes of chill and kelp and chip and maybe jilt, and (reasonably enough) chirp and yelp, and faint hints of such as Chelthenham and jalopy and djellaba. And of course there’s help.

Semantics: Of birds, it means ‘chirp or squeak’. Of people, it means ‘chatter or speak out of turn’; the Collins Dictionary helpfully adds, “esp of women or children.” In other words someone some crotchety guy doesn’t want to listen to while he’s trying to talk at them. But in more modern times it would be a term you could use with anyone to whom you might speak rudely and impatiently. Perhaps such as crotchety guys who are talking at you.

Serve with: You’re most likely to use this in fiction, to put it in the mouth of some rural English sort, and probably not a well-mannered one. But you could always use it in some poetry or some evocative expository text – as long as you put it in a reasonable context. It has a decent onomatopoeia; actually, it sounds like a bird making a doglike sound or a dog making a birdlike sound. The thing to watch out for is just that it doesn’t get inadvertently corrected to help.