Ian Clayton: Let’s all kall about spells

knurr and spell
knurr and spell

I can’t put my finger on why this is, but every time I write about the old fashioned words we still use, I get more response than any other subject I ramble on about.

It seems that we are fascinated by where the words we take for granted come from, what they originally meant and who still uses them. I was talking about this to a friend of mine called Kev who is a taxi driver. We once got overtaken by a speeding motorist and Kev said: “I wonder where he’s going hell for leather.” I told him I didn’t know where the boy racer was going but I knew where the phrase came from.



‘Hell for leather’ is a corruption of an old horse racing term meaning ‘all of a lather’ when a horse gets sweated or lathered through travelling too fast. Now everytime I jump into Kev’s taxi and I want to get to the station quickly, he’ll remind me about going ‘all of a lather.’

The other week I was walking through Castleford, when a man rushed out of the butchers on Carleton Street and said: “I’ve got one for thi! What about ‘yitten’ where does that come from?”

It’s an expression I haven’t heard since childhood, I know exactly what it means, it’s what you say to mates when they daren’t jump over a beck or climb a tree. “Are you yitten?” in other words, you’re cowardly.

I did some research and I couldn’t find anything much beyond it being a northern English dialect word for scared. Then I found in a very old and large dictionary the word ‘yite’ or ‘yoit’ which means yellow and was often associated with the name of the bird the yellow hammer.

Now it doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to go from yellow to scared and cowardly. We even use the term yellow belly to mean a coward. Be careful if you ever use the term yellow in Japan though, because the colour yellow over there is associated with bravery and nobility.

A couple of weeks ago in an article about my gran’s dining chairs, I used the word spell. My gran’s chairs were highly polished and I was often told as a kid to ‘keep your feet off them spells.’

I had a cup of tea in the Salvation Army in Pontefract last Saturday and I was asked to explain my use of that word.

Spell is on of those words with numerous and different meanings, of course we use spell to mean how to write a word, we use it to mean a period of time, to relieve someone for a spell or for a witch’s curse.

The spell I was talking about comes from a very old English word ‘spelk’ or ‘spelc’ meaning split wood.

You might remember from childhood getting a spell in your finger. Spell in terms of wood can also mean to fit wooden bars or rails as cross pieces like a splint to hold something together.

Therefore, the rails that stiffen a dining chair by connecting the legs together are spells. Spell as in the ancient game of knurr and spell can also mean a trap.

In that game, the knurr is released from it’s trap, called a spell. This game was immensely popular in the West Riding about a century ago, they even had leagues for it. A version of it was played round here as ‘peggy.’ Coalminers used pickshafts to hit a shaped wooden peg and then paced out the distance to see how far they had hit it.

One of my favourite dialect words is ‘kalling’ as in to have a good gossip. I once knew a woman who went to work in Louth when Lin Pac moved there in the late 1960s. Within three months, she had moved back to Featherstone again.

When my mother said it was a short stay, the lady said: “Aye well they don’t kall as good down there as we do.”