A Thesaurus of English Dialect and Slang: England, Wales and the Channel Islands

Jonnie Robinson (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 550pp, £120 (hbk)
ISBN 978 1 108 47323 1

Reviewed by Jill French

Buy this book

A Thesaurus of English Dialect and Slang: England, Wales and the Channel Islands by Jonnie Robinson is a comprehensive thesaurus which could be used to help a writer or editor find terms which people use in specific areas.

For most of us, this book is to know about and, when necessary, refer to in a library, rather than to add to our own collection of reference books. It is to help write a term or phrase which encompasses how people, local to a particular area, would speak.

It brings together a massive research effort and has followed from the ambitious Voices project, a collaboration between the BBC, the University of Leeds and the British Library. This project undertook documenting the UK’s linguistic landscape with a wide survey of members of the public.

The sources of the terms and phrases in the thesaurus come from very diverse material including many dictionaries, novels, posts, tweets, numerous other online resources such as Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database, and other thesauruses.

The material is set out in two distinct sections, the first grouped into word topics and the second by region. Within the topics section the collection concerns what respondents said under the main subjects of: how you feel; what you do; what they wear; what you call them; inside and out; and getting personal. Each of these are further divided to enable homing in on the detail and alongside specific words or phrases are the locales where they are found. For example, within the ‘What you call them’ subject there are ten subdivisions, one being ‘Word for something whose name you’ve forgotten’; within this can be found such treasures as doobrey from various locations including Worthing, and with additional refinements such as doobrey-dowhatsit from Norfolk and oobrey-doobrey-whatsit from Grimsby.

From a search here you can find under ‘Getting personal – Lacking money’ the widely used term skint but also much more localised terms such as out-at-heel from Cornwall or prin o arian from Holyhead.

As you might expect, much talk in the UK concerns the weather and in the ‘Inside and outside’ section there two subsections devoted to rain, ‘to rain lightly’ and ‘to rain heavily’. It is in the ‘heavily’ section we find stair-rods from the Solent, and from Osgodby in Lincolnshire come down like muck-forks tine downwards.

The second section orders the material by region broken down into the same topics. Here you could search the West Midlands and, in the topic ‘What you wear’, would find trousers described as chaps in Hanley, kegs in Clun and strides in Dudley.

All of the entries appear with their source and, where known, existing reference material details. The materials are often in freely available audio form. This thesaurus is well laid out, making it easy to navigate and quick to use. It could be useful for fiction editors to help novelists refine their writing, especially the dialogue of characters. An editor could recommend an author spend time listening to some of the audio recordings for a particular region to absorb patterns of speech and interesting phrases to heighten the authenticity of their work and the voices of their characters.

Reviews of other dictionaries and thesauruses All book reviews