It's all gone fingers and toes

Here in Mimir’s Well this time, I thought I would like to share some rare gems that just seemed to come to me, which I thought were absolutely delightful. The first gem turned up in a mysterious black box. You see, I was in Westray, having a fabulous time, because I am lucky enough to be doing a research project on the poet and writer Chrissie Costie, which I will tell you more about in a later edition of Mimir’s Well. So I was in Westray to interview Chrissie Costie’s cousins, when one of the cousins – Nancy Scott – came with this mysterious black box. It turned out that the box contained some of Chrissie Costie’s own papers, which of course was extremely exciting for me, and among them was something which looks like a manuscript for a radio programme or some kind of performance. There are three speakers in this manuscript: Chrissie herself, her sister Bessie and their neighbour and friend Ernest – that is, Ernest Marwick the writer and collector of Orkney folklore and traditions, who right enough did radio broadcasts too. I was absolutely thrilled to see what they were talking about: Old verses and rhymes remembered from their childhood. One of them is a list of finger names. It goes like this:

Ernest: Yaas, that’s sometheen that the owlder ones amang us’ll niver forget.  There waar dizzens o games that could be played like that. Do you mind the fun hid waas tae learn that ivery finger hed a name. The thoom was TOOMIKIN, the next finger LOOMIKIN, the middle finger LANGMAN, the third (– yes, the manuscript says “third”, but that must be a mistake – ) finger LICKPOT an the peerie finger PEEDIEMAN.

Chrissie: I kent hid anither wey. Startin wae the peedie finger, hid gaed this wey – PEEDIE, PEEDIE; PADDY LUDDY; LEDDY WHISLE; LODEY WHUSLE, an the thoom was GREAT ODOMONDOD.

Apart from the thrill of “hearing” these old friends that I have never met, but who I feel like I have known for a while, speak to each other, I was also very excited about the finger names. In my old home-land Norway, we have finger names too. Starting with the thumb, they go like this: Tommeltott, slikkepott, langemann, gullebrann and lille Petter spillemann. The resemblance to the Orkney names that Ernest Marwick lists is striking! Especially toomikin, lickpot and langman. “Langemann” just means “long man” in Norwegian too, which is a kind of intuitive name for the middle finger. “Slikkepott” means “lick-pot” or the kind of spatula that you would use to get the last of the batter out of the bowl. The name Slikkepott applies to a different finger compared to the Orcadian Lickpot, though. The name Gullebrann is a bit more mysterious, but I believe it refers to the fact that rings are often worn on this finger. “Gull” means “gold”, and “brann” means “fire”. But in older days, gold was often described as “red”, like flames. “Lille Petter spillemann” means “little Peter fiddler”, again intuitively referring to the size like the two Orkney names do as well.

When talking about this among my colleagues, my Swedish colleague Alex Sanmark was able to tell me that the finger names are as good as identical in Swedish too, with the exception of the peedieman, which is called “Lilla vickevire”. At this point our German colleague Silke Reeploeg provided the interesting observation that the peedieman’s name in German is “'einen kleinen Peter” – “a little Peter”!

From the dialogue between Ernest and Chrissie, is seems that Orkney has had two finger rhymes. It might be that one is of Scandinavian origin, and the other one of British or American origin. Chrissie’s rhyme I discovered in an American book from 1905, called Sugar and Spice and All That’s Nice, by Mary W. Tileston. It goes like this: “PEEDY Peedy , Pally Ludy , Lady Whistle, Lody Whostle, Great Odomondod !” Sadly, the book does not say whether this rhyme was collected in Orkney, or some other place in Scotland or Britain, or in America. It certainly must have been known in 19th century America, as it also appears in a memoir of the American physiologist Henry P. Bowditch of Harvard University. Here, “Peedy Weedy, Pally Ludy, Lady Whistle, Lody Whostle and Great Odomondod” are toe names. The author – his son Manfred – remarks that the origin of the rhyme “appears lost in antiquity”. There is also another somewhat similar toe-rhyme which goes like this: “Toe-tipe, Pennywipe, Tommy Thistle, Jimmy Whistle, and baby Trippingo.” However, the differences are big enough to say that Chrissie’s rhyme is a distinct version.

The Norwegians have toe-names as well. They go like this (starting with the little toe): Lilletåa, tåtilla, tillaros, apalfru and store stygge skrubbehesten i skogen. And don’t ask me what they mean, for I only understand the first and the last one. “Lilletåa” is easy enough, it means “the little toe”. The next one sounds like a play on the sounds of the first. The third continues this play on sounds by repeating the “tilla”, while the “ros” sounds more like a cow’s name. “Apalfru” could mean “lady of the apples”, but to be honest I’m not quite sure.  “Store stygge skrubbehesten i skogen” is not easily explainable either. It’s the “big, ugly something-horse in the forest”, possibly a big working-horse or maybe a taboo name for a wolf. There is an enormous lot of geographical variation on these names. For instance, another name for the little toe is “tetil”. The next two names, “tåtilla” and “tillaros” seem to be fairly common all over Norway, with some minor variations such as “toten” for number two, or “tellerot” for number three. “Apalfru”, on the other hand, has a wide variety of names, including “minkefru”, “meglefru”, “vaggifru”, “maltfru” and “mæggefrugge”, but at least the “fru” (lady or Mrs) element seems to recur. “Minke”, “megle” and “mægge” could go back to a word for “big”, namely “mikill”, which is the same as the Orkney word “muckle”. Alternative names for the big toe include “storegubben”, “krybbhesten”,  “storskru”, “store grobbehesten grobbe steinane”, and “klubbehesten den store”, which I believe all go back to a common root, as well as unrelated names such as “klompen” (the lumpy one) and “kronprinsen” (the crown prince). Again they are almost identical in Swedish: “lilltåa, tåtilla, tillirota, trubbhästen and gammelfrun”, the difference being that the mysterious horse seems to be the fourth toe, while the “old madam” is the big toe.  I would be very interested to hear if anyone knows any Orkney toe-names.

The other gem that just seemed to come to me was the answer to something which I had been curious about for years. About ten years ago, my husband – who was then my boyfriend – gave me a photocopy of some pages from Jessie Saxby’s book Shetland Traditional Lore, published 1932. In there was a verse in Norn, the old language of Orkney and Shetland. Jessie Saxby had heard it as a child, but did not know what it meant. It goes like this:

Clapa clapa suda

Boochsina scholina bjoda

Bauta deema kjota schin

Swala clovena vjenta in

Roompan poman soda

As a child, Jessie Saxby had been told that this verse protects children from being tempted to sin by evil spirits. She writes: “I hope there is nothing vulgar or indecent in these mysterious rhymes. No one seems able to translate them.”

Any Norwegian, I think, would recognise the first line: “Clapa, clapa suda”. It means “clap, clap, sweetie” and it is the beginning of a still well-known nursery rhyme which concerns cake baking. The corresponding line in Norwegian is  “Klappe, klappe søte” or alternatively “Klappe kake søte” (clap cake sweet). But the rest of the Shetland verse does not fit in with the rest of the Norwegian cake rhyme at all! So what on Earth is it? This was driving me slightly mad ten years ago, so I sent it in to a radio programme where people can ask questions about anything to do with language. Sadly, they didn’t answer my question. I only got an e-mail back saying that none of the linguists that they had contacted were able to translate it, and furthermore they didn’t consider my question to be of common interest! Well, I was still interested, but I got nowhere until last autumn, when I started here at the Centre for Nordic Studies.  We were unpacking several boxfuls of slightly obscure, but very interesting, books which had been donated to our library. From among them, my colleague Andrew Jennings pulled out a Faroese book called Fróðskaparrit 13. bók, from 1964. The pages hadn’t even been cut – possibly because most of it was in Faroese.  But in there was the answer to my puzzle! The answer was in an article by the Norwegian folklorist Svale Solheim, who had seen the Shetland verse and recognised it as a nursery rhyme which is known in Norway too. Again it has geographical variations, but Svale Solheim quotes a version from Aust-Agder in the south of Norway. It goes like this:

So ro min søde

Buksene skal mi bøde

Bøde dei med katteskinn

Vende alle kløane inn

Det er godt nok til søden

It means: “Lullaby sweetie, your trousers we shall mend. Mend them with cat’s skin, turn all the claws inwards. That is good enough for the sweetie!”

Now that this version had put me on the right track, I was able to see what the Shetland verse means too. The first line has obviously been transposed from the verse about baking. Then comes “the trousers we shall mend. Mend them with cat’s skin so that all the claws turn inwards” (a little bit of syntactic variation here, compared to the Norwegian version, but essentially the same). The last line is a bit different: “In my sweetie’s bottom!” I imagine that the adult saying the verse would grasp the child’s bottom at this point, making it laugh. I have tried this, with great success, on my own baby son. We also have great fun with finger names and toe names – in both Norwegian and Orcadian. PS: About the eagle story from Orphir/Hoy that I wrote about last time, I discovered that Ernest Marwick writes that Sir Walter Scott mentions it. Sir Walter Scott says that the person who was abducted by the eagle was still alive “not long” before his 1814 trip to Orkney – or so he had been told. This brings the story back to the 18th century.