Over the centuries the rest of the world has bestowed upon the British people many a japing nickname (limey, pom, redcoat), but what do the Brits call themselves?
While the majority of regional nicknames began life as derogatory terms, most are now worn as a badge of pride.
Here are some of my personal favorites:
Wiltshire – Moonrakers
Legend has it that sometime during the 17th or 18th century a pair of Wiltshire smugglers stashed some contraband barrels of French brandy in a village pond in order to avoid paying tax on them. When night fell the men returned to the pond to recover their loot. However, local customs officers were on to them and waiting patiently in ambush. As the smugglers began raking in the barrels the revenue men confronted them. Thinking on their feet the crooks explained that they believed the moon’s reflection to be a delicious clump of round cheese. With this the taxmen regarded the bootleggers as nothing more than a pair or harmless yokels and retreated, no doubt recounting the tale to much hysteria at the office the following day. But of course, it was the moonrakers who had the last laugh. Incidentally, this practice is where we take the term ‘moonshine’ for illicit liquor from, as most dealers would work at night to avoid detection.
Hartlepool – Monkey Hangers
The story goes that sometime during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. When local fishermen discovered parts of the washed up vessel they were astonished to find one sorry looking survivor – the ship’s pet monkey dressed to the nines in Napoleonic military uniform (adorned for the crew’s amusement). Having never before seen a Frenchman – or a monkey for that matter – the fishermen suspected the furry foe was a French spy. An impromptu trial was then held on the beach, and when the defendant refused to answer any questions he was sentenced to death and hung from the mast of a fishing boat… or so the story goes. What seems more likely (if indeed an incident even occurred and there is no concrete evidence to suggest it did) is that the unfortunate soul that was hanged wasn’t a monkey at all, but rather a young boy. In those days young children known as ‘powder-monkeys’ were employed on warships to prime the canons with gunpowder.
Liverpool – Scousers
With the construction of its first wet dock in 1715, Liverpool grew practically overnight from a small fishing town to an international port city. Suddenly sailors, traders, migrants and merchants from all over Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe were settling in the area, all of them bringing their national idiosyncrasies to everyday life (which is the reason why the Liverpudlian accent has a cadence unlike any other in Northern England). The term ‘scouse’ derives from the Scandinavian dish lobscouse, a lamb or beef stew that was particularly popular with sailors. Consequently, the people who ate this dish became known as scousers.
Blackpool – Donkey Lashers
In Victorian-era Britain the rise of the railway industry meant that people from non-coastal towns and cities could now take daytrips to the seaside. One of the most fashionable destinations was Blackpool, and one of the most popular attractions was the donkey rides up and down the beach. Thus, the visitors affectionately christened the locals ‘donkey lashers.’ This beloved seaside tradition continues to thrill British children and depress British donkeys to the present day.
London – Cockneys
The word ‘cockney’ first appears in William Langland’s poem Piers Ploughman (the exact date of publication is unknown but it was almost certainly sometime between 1360-1370) and simply meant ‘cock’s egg.’ However, by the time Chaucer was composing his Canterbury Tales a couple of decades later, he was using the term to describe “a spoiled child,” “a child tenderly brought up,” or “a milksop.” Usage continued to evolve throughout the Middle English period (1150-1500) and after 1500 to label someone a cockney was to suggest they were a “town dweller” however the word still carried its earlier connotations of suggesting someone was a bit of a sissy or a mummy’s boy.
Definition narrowed further over the next one hundred years and by 1600 ‘cockney’ was specifically associated with the Bow Bells area of London. Indeed, the great travel writer Fynes Moryson wrote in his 1617 book Itinerary that “Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called cockneys.” According to tradition a true cockney must be born within earshot of the St Mary-le-Bow church’s bells, which before modern noise pollutants such as motor vehicles and construction machinery could be heard for six miles to the east, five miles to the north, four miles to the west and three miles to the south. A 2012 study discovered that due to the noise pollutants there are now no maternity wards within earshot of the St Mary-le-Bow bells, suggesting cockneys are something of a dying breed.
Middlesbrough – Smoggies
‘Smoggie’ was originally used as a derogatory term to describe supporters of the Middlesbrough soccer team by rival fans. The nickname alludes to the heavy cloak of smog that regularly hung over the town as a result of its numerous petrochemical factories. However, it wasn’t long before the Middlesbrough fans were referring to themselves as smoggies in that typically British, self-deprecating manner (as made evident by the fans’ banners at away games that read “Smoggies On Tour!”) These days the term has widened and is used to describe anyone from the area.
Devon – Janners
‘Janner’ was originally used as naval slang to refer to anyone from the Devonshire port city of Plymouth. The epithet came about because of the way West Country folk pronounced the name ‘John’ as ‘Jan’ as in the sentence: ‘I likes these toffees, Jan.’ These days janner is used to describe anyone who speaks with a Devon accent.
Newcastle – Geordies
Similar to both ‘scouse’ and ‘cockney,’ the word ‘geordie’ refers not only to the people of Tyneside (specifically Newcastle) but also to the local accent and dialect. As is so often the case where etymology is concerned the specific origin of the term is a matter of heated debate. However, almost all theories agree that it derives from a diminutive form of the name George, which was the most popular name for the first-born son in North East England for many years from the 1700s onwards.
Lincolnshire – Yellow Bellies
If heated debate surrounds the origin of the term ‘geordie’ it is nothing compared to the fiery bickering around the root of the phrase ‘yellow belly.’ Dozens of possible explanations have been put forward, the most common being that a breed of newt or frog (there is even disagreement as to which amphibian) that once lived in the marshy Fenlands of Eastern England had a bright yellow underside. A more feasible explanation is that the term is a military nickname attributed to the yellow waistcoats worn by the Royal North Lincolnshire Militia. Another less likely theory connects the term to the corn farmers of the region. During the summer months the Lincolnshire farmers would often tend to their cornfields without wearing a shirt. As they bent over to work their backs would catch all the sun’s rays, leaving their bellies a contrasting brilliant white. Once they stood straight the corn would reflect a yellow tincture upon their torso.
Black Country – Yam Yams
The first thing you’ll probably want to know is why the Bloody Nora it’s called the Black Country? Well, this region of the West Midlands was particularly active during the Industrial Revolution and takes its name from the heavy layer of black soot that covered the area for most of the 1800s. As for the name ‘yam yam’, it’s to do with the local pronunciation of the present tense of the verb to be – “I am” which colloquially comes out as “y’am.” Nearby neighbors in Birmingham are responsible for dubbing the Black Country folk as yam yams, and in turn they are known as ‘brummies,’ which comes from the Old English name for the city: ‘Brummagem.’ Interestingly, ‘brummagem’ would later enter the dictionary as an adjective to describe cheap or fraudulent goods due to the city’s 17th century reputation for producing counterfeit coins.
What are some of your favorite British or American regional nicknames? Tell us in the comments below.
Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and writer, regularly contributing to BBC America. He has written for many publications including: MLSsoccer.com, First Touch Magazine, Inked Magazine, Contactmusic and more. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC