Weird Norfolk: 20 strange old Norfolk sayings

An old lady stands outside her home in Great Yarmouth. Date: 1953

Do you recognise any of the phrases that were once commonplace amongst our great grandparents? Picture date: May 1953 - Credit: Archant Library

In a bid to bring you unusual and quirky stories about our Fine County, Weird Norfolk spends a great deal of time researching the most curious corners of the library.

Today’s trip down the rabbit hole concerns the phrases that were once commonplace amongst our great grandparents: but do you still recognise any of them?

In the main, these proverbs come from a book with the kind of title that requires a deep breath before you attempt it without surfacing for more air.

The Norfolk Garland: A Collection of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Proverbs, Curious Customs, Ballads and Songs, of the People of Norfolk, as well as Anecdotes Illustrative of the Genius or Peculiarities of Norfolk Celebrities…was published in 1872.

The Jarrold and Sons book was compiled and edited by John Glyde and is a joyful collection of oddities: this is where to go if you want to know how to inform your bees of a death in the family and where you go to enchant a lover back to your side.

The cover of The Norfolk Garland

The Norfolk Garland: A Collection of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Proverbs, Curious Customs, Ballads and Songs, of the People of Norfolk, as well as Anecdotes Illustrative of the Genius or Peculiarities of Norfolk Celebrities. Complied and edited by John Glyde, published in 1872. - Credit: Supplied

The proverbs in the book are an incredible snapshot of a life now lost, but it is important to remember where we have all come from and the old ways we have all but forgotten.

As Glyde puts it: “The student of humanity can neyer afford to neglect or pass by the proyerbs of a people. They generally inculcate patience, frugality, manly independence, and perseverance, and embody good sense, natural equity, and a spirit of kindness.”

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A few of the below are from The Vocabulary of East Anglia; An Attempt to Record the Vulgar Tongue of the Twin Sister Counties Norfolk and Suffolk As it Existed in the Last 20 Years of the 18th Century, published in 1830 and written by Rev Robert Forby, rector of Fincham.

Old Norfolk proverbs

1. PROVERB: There's a scabby sheep in every flock

MEANING: This means both that every family has at least one member that causes them issues and also that one scabby sheep (sheep scab being an acute form of allergic dermatitis caused by a mite) can infect a whole flock, meaning one person with a bad attitude can spread it to everyone.

2. PROVERB: I wasn’t born in a wood to be scared by an owl

MEANING: I’m not as easily frightened as you might think.

3. PROVERB: Laurence has got hold of him

MEANING: This stemmed from a popular story called The History of Lawrence Lazy, first published in 1670. Lawrence has a magic ring which can send everyone around him to sleep; this enables him to play various tricks on people, for which he is eventually put on trial. He is acquitted, after earnest pleading from apprentices, who say that if it were not for him they would be worked to death.

4. PROVERB: You must eat another yard of pudding first…

MEANING: You will have to wait until you get old before you can do (whatever it is the person wants to do).

5. PROVERB: To go down the red lane

MEANING: To put something down someone’s throat.

6. PROVERB: He has a Friday look

MEANING: He’s had enough and is sulking.

7. PROVERB: You may know a carpenter by his chips

MEANING: The nature of a person’s job or interest can be demonstrated by the traces they leave behind. It also came to mean someone who had a big appetite who left behind lots of bones on their plate.

8. PROVERB: Don’t be a gape-seed

MEANING: A gape-seed is someone who finds something so strange, interesting or unexpected that they stare at it with their mouths wide open.

Sheep graze among the gravestones

An old Norfolk proverb says "There's a scabby sheep in every flock". This means both that every family has at least one member that causes them issues. - Credit: Archant Library

9. PROVERB: Go to Bungay to get new-bottomed

MEANING: It may sound like a euphemism, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests this dates to the time when Bungay was well-known for producing leather items such as workwear. When the backside wore away from a pair of breeches, people from Norfolk would go to Bungay to purchase a new pair or have theirs repaired.

10. PROVERB: A ground-sweat cures all disorders

MEANING: You don’t suffer when you’re dead and buried.

11. PROVERB: I gave it him as it came from mill, undressed

MEANING: ‘Undressed’ refers to the bran and flour mixed together before the flour was graded or sorted for quality. It means someone speaking their mind without trying to sugar-coat what they’re saying.

12. PROVERB: He lies bare of a suit

MEANING: He was so poor there was nothing to bury him in. Also refers to someone sleeping who has no good clothes.

13. PROVERB: She has laid a stone at my door

MEANING: She has fallen out with me. A stone left at the door was a reminder not to bother knocking again.

14. PROVERB: A hog would have grunted

MEANING: Even a pig would have acknowledged me.

15. PROVERB: He does the devil’s work for nothing

MEANING: Generally said of someone very keen on using bad language.

16. PROVERB: The dog that fetches, will carry

MEANING: Someone who tells you gossip will tell tales of you as well as to you.

17. PROVERB: Elbow grease gives the best polish

MEANING: The harder you work, the better the result.

18. PROVERB: God’s lambs will play

MEANING: Young people will mess around. This was particularly used when a young person who was generally well-behaved was caught being indiscreet.

19. PROVERB: Nip a nettle hard and it will not sting you

MEANING: If you are measured and decided in difficult situations, it will be more helpful than taking too long or being too cautious to act.

20. PROVERB: He’s got the fiddle but not the stick

MEANING: He’s got all the books but he’s not clever enough to know how to make use of them.