What links these Dereham cottages to a Norfolk ladybird?

PUBLISHED: 08:31 12 May 2018

An archive view of Bishop Bonner's Cottages in Dereham.

An archive view of Bishop Bonner's Cottages in Dereham.


Keith Skipper looks at the origins of one of the best-loved Norfolk dialect words.

I allow myself a wry smile and gentle shrug of the shoulders whenever our wonderful Norfolk dialect is afforded a polite smattering of applause by distant academics.

The latest came as the ‘bishy-barney-bee’, tantalising name for ladybird in these parts, was allowed to wing its way into the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. There’s a promise of more little treats to come.

To be fair, there’s a fair crop of favourite local words already on parade in this definitive record of the English language, including ‘squit’, ‘dodman’, ‘loke’ and ‘mardle’, while ‘tricolate’ is due to join the ranks in June.

Delightfully, the expression ‘on the huh’ has made it into a wider spotlight although it seems unlikely to be joined by close relatives ‘on the sosh’ and ‘on the slantendicular’. Let’s get one thing straight, though… ‘on the huh’ ought to be heard more often when dodgy characters are called before House of Commons select committees.

So, why am I reluctant to holler with delight and jiffle excitedly as these notable breakthroughs draw national attention to examples of our vibrant vernacular? Well, it’s impossible to ignore the blatant irony of such progress in one area while the dust of derision and cobwebs of indifference continue to hang over another.

Norfolk has every right to carry on taking genuine umbrage while the “local flavour” business descends into bucolic buffoonery. Too many drama productions on television and radio – and occasionally on stage – make a cruel mockery of geography, local pride and artistic accuracy.

Nelson’s County, it seems, is a little place wedged somewhere between Devon and Dorset where the peasants mutter “oooh-aaarr! oooh-aaar!” like a Cornish ambulance heading towards a linguistic disaster. This is roughly along the same lines as other stage yokels with vacant faces, plodding walks and guarantee of a role in the next epic needing that authentic county feel.

Embarrassed chunterings about the accent being so hard to imitate do nothing to remove the sting from insults to both Norfolk and the West Country. We are entitled to shake our pitchforks at graduates from the Mummerzet Charm School, including comedians looking for the quickest punchline below the belt.

Just a little reminder that Norfolk should be wary of making sole claims on certain words and phrases. Local corruptions are numerous and fun while dialects can vary considerably from one part of a county to another. There are examples of words and expressions being peculiar to a particular village or even to just one family.

At least the ladybird’s landing on dictionary corner gives me a belated chance to hit the Mastermind trail with my specialist subject likely to knock spots off many rivals. The bishy-barney-bee is an engrossing history lesson in itself. It has been linked to several illustrious figures, including a medieval Bishop Barnaby.

Walter Rye, the Norfolk antiquarian (1834-1929), suggested it originated from “Bene Bee” (Blessed Bee). While more recently, Ted Ellis, doyen of local naturalists, pointed out ladybirds usually appear about St Barnabas’ Day, according to the old calendar (June 23).

There’s also considerable support for the theory that it’s a corruption of Bishop, Bonner Bee. Edmund Bonner was Rector of East Dereham from 1534 until 1540. He later became Bishop of London and gained notoriety for burning about 200 people at the stake during heresy trials in Mary Tudor’s reign.

Bishop Bonner’s Cottages in Dereham, where he lived while in the parish not far from the church, were built in 1502 and now house a local museum. These buildings survived the

fire which destroyed much of the town in 1581.

The fiery colours of the ladybirds’ wing cases could have led to it being given its dialect name. Indeed, bishops often featured scarlet and black in their apparel of olden times.

Many children used to chant ladybird rhymes in school playgrounds, especially in Norfolk. I can recall one beginning: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children are gone” and another in more romantic vein opening with “Bishy-bishy-barney bee, tell me when my wedding be.”

Whatever the derivation, bishy-barney-bee remains one of our best-loved dialect names and soon features in the extended glossaries of newcomers and holidaymakers,

Robert Forby, in his Vocabulary of East Anglia, first published in 1830, said: “It is one of those few highly-favoured among God’s harmless creatures which superstition protects from wanton injury”

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