The Word of the Month for July is ‘syke’, a watery word, and one that is especially associated with the North of England. The article is once again guest-written by Brian Whalley, who brings his knowledge of landscape-making processes to his examination of the word. Like Robert Macfarlane’s recent book Landmarks, one of the reference sources for the definitions with which Brian’s article begins, the article celebrates ‘the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place’ (Macfarlane 2015, ‘The Word-Hoard’). Brian traces the flow of the word through a number of Nicholson’s poems, showing how this ‘compact’ word fits into their landscapes.
1.dial chiefly British : a small stream; especially : one that dries up in summer
2 dial chiefly British : ditch
Middle English, from Old English sīc; akin to Old Norse sīk slow stream, Old English sicerian to trickle [penetrate, ooze, of a fluid making its way through a small opening]
First Known Use: before 12th century
[from Old to Modern English Dictionary]
Macfarlane (2015, p. 39) ‘small stream, often flowing through marshy ground’ but cites the usage as ‘Yorkshire’, with no further attribution.
Alan Anderson (no date) from a walk description in Teesdale has:
From here the remainder of the walk is almost entirely downhill, a section of which involves following the line of marker-posts across a fairly flat section of boggy moor, crossing several small sikes.
For references to ‘syke’ in poetry, we start with Hartley Coleridge (1796 – 1849). Although born in Clevedon near Bristol he moved with his parents to Cumberland in 1800. So he is likely to be familiar with the word in his childhood. In ‘To the memory of James Greenwood’ we find:
So he became a dweller of the hills,
And learned to love the village ways so well,
He prized the stream that turned the wealthiest mills
Less than the syke that trickles down the fell.
Nicholson uses the word syke several times in his poems, although not always in quite the same way. However, he does always refer to, or allude to, flowing or trickling water. This attests to syke’s North Country roots. It is one of those short crisp words picked up from childhood, the kind of word that ‘everyone knows what is meant by it’. It would be interesting to know how well it is known today by children in Cumbria.
It is a word that fits neatly in poetry lines and is used as a sibilant rhyme in several places in Nicholson’s poems. For example, in ‘Beck’ (Collected Poems, 319-320)
The pith of the pikes
Oozes to the marshes,
Slides along the sykes,
Trickles through ditch and dub
Note however that although slow running water is referred to, ‘sykes’ here seems to be the stream channel itself. In ‘The Elm Decline’ (CP 283) it is again a slow flow of water
black sykes ooze
through quarries of broken boulders,
In 'The Land Under the Ice' (CP 116-117) there are two instances:
The white fur moults beneath the April sun,
By the black peat where the sykes run;
And whiter than the hair of snow,
The starry saxifrage begins to grow.
The thin sykes wriggle in the April light,
Between the granite’s grudging thighs,
These examples fit in well with the seasonally-ephemeral rivulets associated with snow melt. It is reasonably evident what a syke is by context.
Now in 'Sea to the West' (CP 338) we have an allied word, ‘gutter’ as in:
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull
I doubt if Nicholson had any specific time or location for this view westwards, despite the biographical statement ‘once, fifteen’, intended to indicate a time in the poet’s youth. But the gutterings would be there as the tide went out and the sykes would probably be the ephemeral streams flowing down them during the ebb. The gutters/gutterings might be channels with water in sandy beaches, such as seen every day at Hodbarrow, or in the tidal marshes around Morecambe Bay.
A side note, ‘guttering’, as of candles, seems uncommon in poetry but, with reference to the links between Wilfred Owen and Nicholson made by Malcolm Morrison (2015) there is a contrasting usage in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’`;
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in…
In ‘Tide out’ (CP 334) we return to the salt marshes:
Ebb-tide at sunset:
the last light
Slides up the channel
as the sea slides down.
level into an elevated
Atlantis of sand.
The day's green aftermath
Seeps along ginnel
and dried-up canal.
However, here we don’t have ‘syke’, but rather water flow as a ‘green aftermath’ that ‘seeps along ginnel’. Not guttering, then’ but ‘ginnel’, to rhyme with ‘tunnel’. The word ‘ginnel’, in fact, usually has a different meaning, the north country ‘wynd’ of Kendal and usually the side entry between terraced houses to gain access to the back yards. Not an exact description of water draining a salt marsh, but surely ‘ginnel’ is a word that all (from the north!) would know, and would therefore know what was meant. As in this recent house description:
3 bedroom house for sale in Holborn Hill, Millom. Outside is an enclosed yard with access from the adjoining yard and ginnel.
Ginnel seems to be a well-accepted northern-ish word. However, I have asked some of my geomorphology colleagues if they know the word ‘syke’, but no, not in any context. I would be interested if readers who recognise ‘syke’ would let Comet and the website know. I think it is a compact word and one that fits in neatly with Nicholson’s uses. Perhaps readers could also find ways of reinstating it in everyday use?
Anderson, A. ‘Holwick - Bink Moss, Walking World’ http://walks.walkingworld.com/walk/Holwick---Bink-Moss.aspx
Macfarlane, R. 2015, Landmarks, Hamish Hamilton.
Morrison, M. 2015, ‘Two Poets and a Composer: Response to War’. Comet, 9 (2) 18-27.
Brian asks whether Cumbrian children would still know the word ‘syke’. Some of them would certainly know the word in a local topographical sense, as a place or house name, although they might not enquire too deeply about the actual meaning of the word.
The word also appears as a surname, usually in the form ‘Sykes’. The heartland of this name, both now and in the past, is Yorkshire, again, as Brian stresses, attesting to its North Country roots.
The Lakeland Dialect Society lists the word on its Dialect Glossary page like this:
‘Syke /n Small stream - Ah clooted oor Sheila efter Ah kicked him inter t't syke an' efter Ah'd braed im. After I beat my sister Sheila, and after I had beaten him, I kicked him into the ditch.’
It’s interesting that the example given here extends the meaning of ‘syke’ so that it also means a ditch. This is, in fact, a further meaning of the word, as given by the Oxford English Dictionary and as noted in the definitions heading Brian Whalley’s article.