Looking around the classroom door, a boy with his head on the desk in front of him looked familiar.
“Is that Johnny with his head down, ma’am?” I asked the teacher.
“Aye. It is. He came in here with the two arms the one length.”
(It was a reading lesson and the student had brought no book with him).
“I love that expression. Seamus Heaney uses it in The Republic of Conscience. It must have been popular in Co Derry. Heaney used it in a neutral way, but it can be a real rebuke.”
“My ma certainly used it that way. There would always be enough food in our house to feed ten times as many as would be there, but if someone came to visit and brought nothing, she would say, ‘Do you see her? Coming here with the two arms the one length.'”
“Two arms the one length,” comes from a seanfhocal, an old Irish Gaelic saying. Expressions from the Irish language endure in the Hiberno-English spoken in the Republic of Ireland and mingle with the Ulster Scots of the North. Succinct, they convey a whole realm of meaning. “Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile,” commented a school principal when I commented that someone was very good at raising funds. Raising my eyebrow, she translated, “one black beetle knows another.” I laughed at the comment.
Once, England would have been filled with such a vernacular. Perhaps outside of the broadcast and social media, there is still a wealth of expression.
Teaching in Cheltenham, it is encouraging to see the number of dialect words still in everyday use among the students. “Cushtie” lingers in use long after the disappearance of Del Boy from the screens. The “gavvers” are unpopular with boys who think the police pick on certain people. “Dinlo” may be prefaced with an expletive which leads to the departure of the student from the room, it has the power of the Irish “amadan” as an expression for a stupid person. To be cross, confrontational, is likely to lead to the accusation of being “larey.” Looking up the various words used on a daily basis, many of them seem to come from the gypsy community, perhaps they reached the town through the horse racing fans.
Somerset would have had its own vernacular when I was young, in earlier times, there must have been an oral culture as strong as that in Ireland. With the influx of people from all over England, the community has been diluted and the words have been lost.