I wrote in an earlier post about regional variation in terms for lying snow. There are also phrases that belong to one part of the country rather than another.

My mother would look at a lowering sky, when dark clouds were gathering before a storm, and say “It’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mother’s”. I always assumed that this was simply a family saying, going back to a time perhaps when a family member or friend called “Bill” lived in the direction from which bad weather often came, but my partner, who was born thirty-odd miles away from me, and whose parents’ families were from Norfolk and South Staffordshire respectively, also uses it, so it obviously has wider currency. I’ve also established that it is known as far away as Blackpool. There is some discussion on various web sites about its origin, from which it also seems common in the East Midlands. Can we stretch it further?

Another one in use in Stoke on Trent is a phrase that means explain something in a long-winded way, or go a long way round for a short cut: “go all round the Wrekin”. The Wrekin (pronounced /ˈriːkɪn/) is described in Wikipedia as being a hill of volcanic origin in Shropshire, and so quite some distance from the Potteries, but visible on a clear day (in the old days there weren’t many of them, with hundreds of bottle ovens belching out smoke from being fired with coal!) from the hill tops. Obviously, the expression can only be used in those parts of the country where the Wrekin is a familiar landmark, but not very close by (photograph by Gordon Dickins). How far can we extend this phrase’s usage?

photograph by Gordon Dickins


  1. Both phrases were current in Derby when I was young. In the case of the Wrekin I suppose that is a bit surprising.

  2. Thanks, John. I wonder if pottery workers moving from the Potteries to Derby could have brought it with them?

  3. I know a family in Leamington Spa (Warwickshire) who say round the Wrekin – parents are from Warwick and (I think) Co. Cavan, so I’ve no idea where they got hold of the expression. It means you can say it without having to see it!

  4. Martin – at which point, of course, “Wrekin” becomes a vocabulary word like any other, with no connexion between its etymology and its current meaning. Just like “hamburger”, which has given rise to “beefburger”, or the names of types of vehicle, such as limousine, sedan …

  5. A couple of other “Derby phrases” have sprung to mind, and I am wondering how widespread they are really.

    1. All over the shop = confused, disorganised
    2. Well, I’ll go to our house = I am flabbergasted

    By the way, in “a bit black over Bill’s mother’s” the word mother was always pronounced mɒðə in Derby. That is the trad. dialect pron. of the word.

  6. John – Thanks for these extras. “All over the shop” is known to me, but the other one I know as “I’ll go to the foot of our stairs”.

  7. I have also grown up with the phrase “It’s black over our Bill’s mother’s”, and that was in the Wakefield area of Yorkshire.

    I think that regional phrases don’t get picked up well by questionnaire-based surveys. You need someone to speak fluently at length to get the phrases.

  8. From Stoke (but a better part than Graham’s – not far from Meir Heath where you actually can see the Wrekin):
    ‘I’ll go (to) the back of our house’ (as well as ‘the foot of our stairs’). But not just ‘our house’.

  9. On reflection, you also hear ‘the foot of the stairs’. But never ‘the back of the house’.

  10. I grew up in Coventry and “A bit black over Bill’s mother’s” was/is a well used phrase there. Most of Coventry’s weather, including threatening black cloud, approaches from the Stratford-on-Avon direction and the phrase alludes to Will Shakespeare’s mom.

  11. Malc –
    That’s an interesting hypothesis, but I’m not sure that the working classes of the north Midlands would have been thinking of the Bard – just as in Coventry, ‘weather’ tends to come from the west, and Stratford is south, rather than west, of Stoke and Derby, to say nothing of Manchester. I think we need evidence of the phrase from some of those many dialect dictionaries that have been published, especially ones from the nineteenth century and earlier.

  12. Graham, Coventry schools, in the 1940s, taught us, that Britain’s prevailing wind is typically from the south-west.


    Stratford-on-Avon and Wilmcote, Shakespeare’s mom’s birthplace, lie to Coventry’s south-west.

  13. Malc –
    You have a far more optimistic view of the sophistication of the 19th century urban population of industrial England than I do. That may be snobbish on my part, but I am the product of exactly that demographic, coming from a long line of workers in the pottery industry.

    Quite separately, I’m interested that you refer to Shakespeare’s “mom” rather than to any more obviously British familiar term for ‘mother’.

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