What Is The Origin Of (289)?…

Tyke

Neighbours always seem to like to get one over each other, co-existing in a spirit of friendly rivalry. Lancastrians and people from Yorkshire like to think they are better than each other, laud their own virtues and poke fun at the characteristics of their so-called rivals. To those who live outside of the county of the white rose, the good folk of Yorkshire are known as tykes. Where did this name come from and is it pejorative or neutral in its connotations?

Our quest for an answer starts with an Old Norse word, tik, meaning a female dog. It was adopted into English as tyke sometime around the 15th century and it assumed a broader range of meanings. First, it was applied to a dog, irrespective of sex, and usually one of dubious lineage like a mongrel. By extension it was used as a description of a man, unpleasant and coarse in demeanour and manners, and then to denote a child, especially a small, mischievous one. I recall people saying of a particularly cheeky boy, “come here, you little tyke”.  

Quite when and why it was associated with the denizens of Yorkshire is far from certain. That it had is clear from a helpful definition provided by the pseudonymous B E Gent in his A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1699. There he tells us, “Yorkshire-tike, a Yorkshire manner of Man”. An entry in the glossary of the canting crew, members of the lower orders, especially professional thieves and mendicants, for whom Francis Grose named 64 job description in his New Canting Dictionary of 1725, suggests that it was slang. As to why Yorkshire it is suggested that they used the term as a noun for a dog. Perhaps.

The term appeared in a poem printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1739 about the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin. Turpin had only recently been hung for his crimes, on April 7, 1739 in York, and had spent the latter part of his career, from 1737, in Yorkshire under the alias of John Palmer. The poet clearly saw the term not only as pejorative but also as a synonym for someone who is poor and down on their luck. “What cou’d he do, in that dire starving case,/ but take the trade peculiar to the place?/ Turn Yorkshire tike and steal a horse or two/ so hang at Tyburn ‘midst the jockey crew?

Matthew Prior’s The Wandering Pilgrim, published the following year in 1740, also uses the term in a derogatory fashion to denote someone who is poverty-stricken; “could Yorkshire-Tyke but do the same,/ Than He like Them might thrive,/ But Fortune, Fortune, Cruel Dame,/ To starve Thou do’st Him drive”.           

By the start of the 20th century, if not earlier, Yorkshire folk had adopted the term as a descriptor of themselves and their county of origin and it was a matter of pride, a code for the characteristics that they considered especially appropriate. Charles Harper sums all this up ably in his The Great North Road: The Old Mail Road to Scotland, published in 1901. He starts by confirming that “we call a dog a tyke” but then explains, that, “tyke, applied to a Yorkshireman, is to be taken in the complimentary sense. Indeed, the Yorkshireman’s good conceit of himself does not allow him to think that any other sense could possibly be intended. He generally prides himself on being sly, devilish shy. That he is so, too, those who have tried to overreach him, either in his native wilds or elsewhere, have generally discovered”. Harper goes on to describe them as deep ‘uns, taciturn and difficult to fathom, and rounds off with a proverb which, perhaps, bears testimony to the county’s association with Turpin; “shake a bridle over a Yorkshireman’s grave, and he will rise and steal a horse”.

As a Lancastrian by birth, I’m saying nowt.

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