Exploring Colourful Old Sussex Words and their Meaning

Overcoming the North/South Divide

As well as being mixed species (man and woman – whoever thought that would work as a combination?!), Hub and I cross the divide – the north/south divide, that is.  I’m a hardy northerner and he’s a namby-pamby southerner.  As such, we’ve spent much of the time since we were shackled together arguing about word pronunciation and whether words he’s never heard before are common parlance and he’s just led a sheltered life or, as he’s fond of saying, “it must be a northern expression.”  Even as we approach three decades together, I apparently still come out with idioms that leave him aghast.

So I got to thinking about whether I’d heard many strange turns of phrase since we moved from London to Sussex.  We’ve been here now for almost 25 years and, apart from discovering trugs, I can’t say that I’ve happened upon much that’s been new to me.  Perhaps I’m just not mixing with the right people – those whose veins flow with the true, olde worlde Sussex blood.  Or is it just that the old vernacular has been lost to history.

I decided to investigate…

According to the online encyclopaedia “vestiges of old Sussex vocabulary persist in rural communities to this day. These archaic words provide a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the English language.”  Well, we live pretty rural and I’ve not come across any.  What am I missing?

woman washing clothes

Apparently, one of the most well-known Sussex words is “duggle,” meaning to bathe or wash oneself.  Well, given the actions of our water companies, we’re unlikely to hear about anyone “dugglin’ in the river” nowadays, but this word was in common usage centuries ago. Related words like “daggled” (disheveled or dirty) and “daggle-tail” (a slovenly woman) have also fallen out of fashion.  These, I think we should revive.  I’ve decided to command Hub to start calling me a “daggle-tail” on a regular basis.  Especially in public.

Another vintage Sussex term is “ellyards,” referring to elderly people.  You might tell your grandchildren to “stop botherin’ those poor ellyards!”  Being topical, if Boris Johnson was from Sussex, he might have declared “Let the ellyards accept their fate!”  But he isn’t, so he didn’t.

If you stumbled over a rock, you could blame it on a “galligantus” – a big lump or boulder.

If you were feeling affable, you might describe yourself as “hernsome” (courteous or pleasant). Or if your neighbor was being nosy, you could call her an “aglooker” – someone who stares rudely at others, presumably without the cover of net curtains.

After a long day’s work, you might relax with a “lood of bread and cheese.” Back then a “lood” was a large chunk or big piece of something.  So next time our Lyn Funnel heads off to the High Weald Dairy to pick up some of their delicious award-winning cheeses, she’ll know what to ask for.  If she’s feeling really hungry, she’ll probably eat the entire “whopstraw!”

Way back then, Sussex folk also had colourful terms for animals. A ladybird was called a “bishy barnabee.”  Baby frogs were known as “blobbys” or “blobbits,” while caterpillars were called “woolly bears”.  Some claim these words date back to the 14th century!

There are also Sussex expressions that are less peculiar to outsiders. To “take your smock off” meant to hurry up. If you made a mess, you were said to “breed a mizzle”. And it was advisable to “make your game” before doing something risky.

To our local readers, I’m interested to know whether you’ve heard of any of these words.  Maybe you still use them?  Or perhaps you have some of your own that you’d like to add in the interests of continuing the further education of us interlopers.  If so, let us know in the comments below.

The continued use of old words provides a living link to the origins of modern English and gives each area its unique charm. I think those of us who live here in Sussex should do our best to keep these peculiar words alive by resolving to pepper our speech with them whenever we can. For visitors to our fine county, next time you’re in Sussex, keep your ears open for a taste of linguistic history.


  • Maria Bligh

    Maria Bligh is a journalist, published author, professional speaker, singer and artist now settled in Sussex, UK, having previously travelled extensively throughout the UK and overseas, including a period living in Geneva. Married to a successful musician and with a background that encompasses working in the music industry, finance, sales and presentations training, she maintains a diverse existence. Her interests encompass travel, nature, animals and the arts: music, theatre, painting, writing and philosophy. Maria now writes for online and print magazines. Having once maintained a regular full page in “A Place In The Sun” magazine, travel is an obvious interest, but her articles also cover a wide variety of subjects. She bills herself as “an observer of the human condition and all that sail in her.” Maria has frequently appeared on radio & TV as well as in print. Her humorous style has seen her travel the world addressing audiences throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia and as a cruise-ship speaker with P&O and Fred Olsen.

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