by KATHLEEN MORRIS
Norman Nicholson only used this word once in his poetry. It occurs in ‘From Walney Island’ (The Pot Geranium, 1954):
This shore looks back to England: two hundred yards
of tide, and the boats fratching on their leashes
Like dogs that sniff a stranger ...
I’m sure this is a word Nicholson must have known all his life, as I have, and it pulls me up with a jolt to realise that there are people who do not understand it and have never heard it used in everyday speech.
The meaning of the word in the poem is clear: the boats are tugging, straining at the ropes that hold them in place, as if wanting to get away, striking a note of disagreement with their circumstances.
‘Fratching’ doesn’t make it into my Concise Oxford Dictionary, but it is explained in several other sources. One, www.newenglishreview.org, describes it as an endangered word. The Dialect of Northumberland, published as recently as 2000, also seems to be of the opinion that it is a word likely to die out; only about one in five of the people questioned by the authors knew the word, and they were more likely to be older people. I hope they are both wrong, as fratching holds nuances which are not completely covered by other words.
It is defined by most large dictionaries as quarrelling, arguing, disagreeing; the associated noun is ‘fratch’. An American dictionary of Middle English, published by the University of Michigan, asserts that the word has its origin in late Middle English, perhaps around 1400, and that it is derived from ‘fraechan’, a word of uncertain origin meaning ‘to creak’.
The Collins dictionary labels it as a 19th century word meaning ‘to make a harsh noise’, probably an imitative word. The full Oxford English Dictionary (OED) allows it a slightly earlier pedigree, from the early 18th century, describing it as dialect, and is also of the opinion that it is an imitative word.
These sources illustrate the perennial problem with so many dialect words – they can be used widely and for a long time without ever being recorded in writing. So was ‘fratching’ a Georgian invention, or were our medieval ancestors saying it?
It may be that back in the 15th century, it was a widespread vernacular word, becoming more localised only in later centuries. That invaluable and amusing 1839 publication, William Holloway’s Telling Dildrams and Talking Whiff-Whaff: a Dictionary of Provincialisms, gives the definition as a quarrel both in jest and in earnest. It says it is a word of northern dialect. More recent listings, online, limit the geographical area of usage even further: www.thedialectdictionary.com says it is a word of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The website of the Cockermouth Heritage Group puts in a claim for Cumbrian usage with a quote from several decades ago, when Cockermouth was described as ‘a fratching town’, when a public row erupted over the allocation of a Council job.
An article posted in 2013 on the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org.uk) has the intriguing headline, ‘Fratching Over Sunflower Seeds’. It went on to describe finches and siskins squabbling and fighting at a bird feeder in a garden. The comments posted in response made it clear that some of those who had read the article had never met the word ‘fratching’ before; perhaps it really is an endangered word.
But the description of birds fighting for sunflower seeds brings in a more physical aspect to the word than most of the dictionary definitions imply, and this is in keeping with the modern use of the word. The boats in ‘From Walney Island’ do not use words. So how physical does it get? You would not describe GBH inflicted in a pub brawl as fratching, unless you were a particularly inventive defence lawyer. But you might use it about children who were arguing and pulling one another’s hair. The boats in the poem are not really pulling very strongly on the ropes, just trying them out, so to speak. And it is implicit in the phrase that they do not in fact break free. In using this word, Nicholson may have been thinking back to his own childhood. I wonder how often his grandmother might have said, “Give over fratching, our Norman”. It is at the lower end of misbehaviour, more annoying that threatening, and probably soon forgotten.
This makes the vignette of squabbling finches and siskins a good example of fratching – sounds (if not words) and actions both together. From there to the spectacle of boats tugging ineffectually at their mooring ropes, making creaking noises as they do so, is only a short step, so perhaps this word is still very much alive and kicking, at least in some quarters.
I too have known this word all my life: growing up in Workington, my siblings and I were often accused of it when we were bickering. I only ever heard the term used in that specific way – intransitively, denoting more than one person in low-level verbal conflict. Related nouns and adjectives never featured, nor did transitive uses of the verb though, as Kathleen has noted, these can be found elsewhere along with a range of meanings. The OED’s first, obsolete definition of ‘fratch’ is ‘to make a harsh or strident noise’. As Kathleen points out, some sources trace it to Middle English - ‘fraechan’, ‘fracchen’ or ‘fracchyn’. Citations in the OED, in dialect literature and in dictionaries of northern and Scots dialects, attest to varied definitions and nuances: to argue or wrangle; to fall out; to be habitually at loggerheads; to scold; to complain, fret or worry. The noun ‘fratch’ can mean a minor dispute or quarrel, while a ‘fratchin’ may be a telling-off as in Robert Anderson’s 1805 Ballads in the Cumbrian Dialect, cited in the OED. Adjectives for a disputatious person or situation include ‘fratchy’, ‘fratchity’ and ‘fratchous’ (or ‘fratchious’ or ‘fratcheous’). No source suggests any link with the Latinate near-homophone ‘fractious’, but the resemblance is striking.
Two 1869 publications, R B Peacock’s A Glossary of the Dialect of the Hundred of Lonsdale, North and South of the Sands and J P Morris’s A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness, deal with areas from which some of Nicholson’s forebears came, and report the interesting adjective ‘fratched’. Describing a horse in harness, it apparently meant restive or ill-tempered. I wonder if Nicholson knew that usage and wove it, along with the onomatopoeia and the idea of a quarrel, into his image of ‘the boats fratching on their leashes/Like dogs …’? The boats are fretful and restless on the tide, grating harshly on the shingle of the Walney channel as they struggle against their restraints, perhaps irritably colliding in the process. One down-to-earth word, so richly and evocatively employed: let’s hope it stays alive and kicking.