According to Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang, by Bernard Share, pickering – in colloquial Irish English – means “Expressing amorous interest in.” Sort of like hankering, I guess, but more… picky? Peckish? Share doesn’t give an etymology.

But it puts me in mind of a story. Not an Irish one, a Northern English one, but anyway.

There was this king. I don’t know which one, but he was in Northern England for some reason, Yorkshire to be precise, North Yorkshire to be preciser, Ryedale to be preciserer. Anyway, he had a fancy. Probably he had more than one fancy, but he had a fancy ring, that’s for sure, and he lost track of it. It came off his finger, as rings may, depending on what you’re doing.

So he blamed a local maiden.

Well, that’s the story. We don’t know why he thought she might have it, but I’m sure he must have connected it to her somehow, and by the way, “maiden” used to have the less restrictive sense “young unmarried woman,” just saying. Did I mention that the king was also unmarried? This will turn out to be relevant. I think it was already relevant. He may have been pickering for her (history does not record this but come on). But he was no piker.

I’m picturing him going over to her and saying something like “Oi! Julia! [Or whatever. Marian. Elspeth. Emma. Edith. Ecgwynn. Ælfgifu. Who knows.] C’mere, you naughty… maiden.”

“Yaaaaz?” says she.

“You know that ring? The one that usually resideth on this finger?” (He’d probably be speaking in a much older language that you wouldn’t understand, but the problem is I wouldn’t either. Mostly.)

“Yaaaaaz…” she says.

“You got it?”


“Yes you do.”

“Distinctly not.”

“Quite sure.”

“Look, my… king, that ring is a big chunky thing and it wouldn’t fit me. And I don’t want it. I want my own ring. Maybe you lost it when you were doing something else?”

“What else do I even do?”


And so it goes. The king is in a dudgeon, the maiden is in a dungeon (well, maybe not, but the doghouse for sure). And then later in the day the cook serves up a nice big fish, a pike (I guess a northern pike, given the location, or is that how it works), caught in the local River Costa, for the king’s dinner, and guess what.

Yup. The pike has the ring in it.

The king is so happy he marries the maiden.

That’s what the story says. I reckon it was less simple than all that. Like I say, I think he was pickering for her already. And probably she for him.

But this story of the pike ring, which is more than a little fishy, purports to be the origin of the name of the town of Pickering, in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.

It is not the origin of the name of the town of Pickering, in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.

Sorry, folks. Like all those other English town and city names ending in –ing, Pickering is named after the friends and family of a specific dude. Been to Tooting in Greater London? It’s named after the followers of Tota, nothing to do with horns. And Pickering is named after some conjectural bloke named Picer. Who may or may not have been a piker.

The original Pickering is no longer the biggest or best-known Pickering. If you head east out of Toronto on the Eight-Lane Dementor, officially known as Highway 401, you will pass through a string of other cities melted into each other like cookies on a baking sheet. The cities, in reverse order of distance from Toronto, are Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, and Pickering. Pickering is on the other side of an imaginary line from Scarborough, the easternmost part of Toronto (to add to the geographic confusion, North York is a part of Toronto west of Scarborough, so obviously in Ontario Pickering is not in it).

Pickering has a nice bay called Frenchman’s Bay (named after an early European invader, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, or “Frenchman” for short, since that’s what François means and who wants to say that whole name; no one wrote down what the bay was called by all the people who were already there). There’s a marina, and right next to the bay is a nuclear generating station. (Insert joke here about how the king’s fish would have been glow-in-the-dark.) Anyway, Pickering, Ontario, has nearly 100,000 inhabitants, which is around 15 times as many as Pickering, North Yorkshire.

And what if Maid Egcwynn had said “I just want to be friends?” Give her a few centuries and she could have joined the Friends – the Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers, who got an early toehold in Pickering, North Yorkshire, and many of whom also came and settled in Pickering, Ontario, after the American You-Know-What (as the English like to call that 1776 event). Which probably would have annoyed Frenchman de la Rest of It, who was a Catholic missionary. And who also, thus, come to think of it, was prohibited from acting on any pickering he might experience.

One response to “pickering

  1. Did any of this backstory influence G.B. Shaw when naming a character in “Pygmalion” Col. Pickering? He may have had a pickering for Eliza Doolittle, since, in the words of one summary, “he treats Eliza kindly and considers her feelings.” https://www.litcharts.com/lit/pygmalion/characters/colonel-pickering

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