The Word of the Month for August is an unusual and puzzling one, contributed by Norman Nicholson Society member Kathleen Morris. It captures Nicholson’s love of bird-life – commented on in the Word of the Month for January 2015 (‘spink’) – and carries the flavour of eccentricity and individuality in its initially puzzling collocation. Kathleen Morris expertly investigates the word, both in the context of Nicholson’s poem ‘The Borehole’, and as a specifically Lakeland dialect word now enjoying a revival of interest in several contexts. Do read on…
'jammy crane' n
by Kathleen Morris
Jammy crane (n.)
Jammy-crane is the second of two words awarded an explanatory footnote in 'The Borehole' (A Local Habitation; Collected Poems p. 266); the other word, ‘skear’, was Word of the Month in July.
Jammy crane (with or without a hyphen) is a dialect word for heron. This would presumably be the grey heron (ardea cinerea); the heron family is large, but this is the bird most people have in mind when referring simply to a heron.
There is evidence of ‘jammy crane’ in dialect speech since at least the mid 19th century, associated with the area loosely described as Lakeland. The late Victorian English Dialect Dictionary gives it as a word found in Westmorland and Lancashire, but does not suggest any derivation.
Having pottered along as a fairly localised dialect word for so long, the word seems recently to have taken on a new life of a sort. It keeps turning up as a quiz question, for instance inCumbria Magazine's 2015 New Year quiz - 'Which bird in Cumbrian dialect is a jammy crane?' Notably, by now it is 'Cumbrian' dialect, rather than Westmorland or Lancastrian, although the 19th century writers do not seem to place it in Cumberland. Quite a few purely online quizzes include it; is this because the word is better known than it used to be, or is an example of online sources feeding off one another?
I got the impression that some of the online examples I found were just a little self-conscious, and that jammy crane was not in fact a word the authors would use comfortably in their everyday speech.
But Nicholson's use of the word, while deliberate and carefully chosen, is the opposite of self conscious or posturing. He uses it to create a precise visual image, one which contains within it the contradiction implicit in the poem as a whole.
The image relies on the use of 'crane' in the bird's name, producing the mental picture of a machine - not necessarily just a mechanical crane, but perhaps a mechanical excavator or a drilling rig of the kind that people might now be more inclined to associate with exploration for oil or gas. Specific enough to raise a fairly clear picture in the mind but not so specific that you can see the make and model number of the machine.
The bird/machine image runs through the poem, with the drilling rig's extraction of minerals from the earth likened to a heron's successful catching of a worm. This image, striking though it is, is an unusual piece of inaccuracy for Nicholson, usually so careful in his observations of the natural world. The comparison between bird and machine breaks down when the heron's beak is likened to a drilling or boring tool, because herons do not use their beaks in this way. A heron catches its prey - fish, frog, or even a worm - by patiently waiting and observing. It stands motionless, typically on a river bank, waiting for its prey to move into range, then makes a sudden move, almost too swift for the human eye to see, emerging smoothly from its dip in the water with a fish clamped in its beak.
Some birds do indeed use their beaks as boring or probing instruments, for instance the curlew, but the heron is not one of them. Sadly, the curlew does not have the nickname of jammy crane, nor does it have the stature or the prominently long legs of the heron, so accuracy has had to be sacrificed to image in this poem.
But leaving the imagery aside, what of the word itself?
It clearly has a history of at least a couple of centuries, but I have not found evidence for its earlier use. On the other hand, the generic term 'crane' has been used to signify 'heron' for a long time. Although it is something a modern ornithologist would deplore, the two words seem to have been interchangeable in common parlance over the centuries. Place names attest this - Cranbrook, Cranmere, Cranwell, among others, all referring to places favoured by herons. It seems therefore that 'crane' and 'heron' mean the same thing to many people in the British Isles, where the crane proper (grus grus) does not appear.
So a heron could be called a crane, but why it should be prefixed by 'jammy' is another matter, and a more problematic one. Sources, even those as impeccable as the English Dialect Dictionary, are content to give the meaning of jammy crane but not a derivation. One Victorian author, J. P. Morris, in ‘A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness and North Lancashire’, published in the 1860s but now on the internet, speculated that jammy might derive from the French 'jambe' (leg), referring to the bird's long legs. I am not persuaded by this; the Lake District has never been a hotbed of French speaking populations or French influences generally.
What is more interesting here is that the word is referred to as being from Furness and north Lancashire - again, not Cumberland, although this does not preclude it having been used in other places, such as 'north Westmorland', as referred to below. In the absence of writers mentioning the word in connection with other parts of the country, it seems to have been a remarkably localised word for a bird that is so widespread throughout Britain.
I have no great revelations to make on this point and would only fall back on the rather obvious comparison with the magpie and jackdaw; birds which are so familiar that they are given a common name taken from those widely used by people. In other words, it was at some time in the past given a semi-human status and personality, and was called, effectively James. This would shorten to jemmy, or as we see, jammy. The current form of Jimmy is more modern than Jemmy or Jem as a pet form of James; this ties in with the fact that jammy crane is a word (or two) with a long history.
At www.archive.org there is a fascinating 19th century book, 'Lakeland Words', by B. Kirby, which includes not only the dialect words of the area, but also illustrative sentences in what are described as north Westmorland dialect. One particularly interesting example relates to the word 'heron-sew', which is glossed as 'a jammy long neck', with the explanatory sentence, 'He shot oot a neck as long as a heron-sew'.
Leaving aside the question of whether north Westmorland and Lakeland are, or ever were, synonymous, this is a particularly circular sort of definition. The word which is being defined as dialect is a form of heron, and the explanation is similar to the word which we now regard as dialect, and which other writers at the time were also designating as dialect. Jammy crane or jammy long neck? It looks as though one form of the name has won out over the other in popular use over the years; perhaps they were both in use at one time. Either way, both use what I contend would have been a familiar form of a common name to refer to the same bird.
And what of the alternative form ‘heron-sew’? This is getting very close to the handsaw which Hamlet could distinguish from a hawk; but this is a whole different piece of philological speculation …