February 26, 2016
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Counting Sheep

It turns out, there have been nerds for a very long time.

I'm reading Bloody Mary’s, Geoffrey Dennis’s 1934 account of being a British schoolboy in the 1890s.  

There's a diversion about Special Local Knowledge that all the boys acquire from each other at school, and one of their fascinations is that, even in the 1890s, Yorkshire shepherds had a separate system for "scoring" sheep. (Scoring, I presume, because you want to know how many score of sheep you have, rather than to know whether the sheep are winning.)   The numbers are:

Yah, Tiah, Tethera, Methera, Pip, 
Seezar, Leezer, Cattera, Hona, Dick, 
Yah-Dick, Tiah-Dick, Tether-a-Dick, Mether-a-Dick, Bumper, 
Yah-De-Bumper, Tiah-de-Bumper, Tether-de-Bumper, Mether-de-Bumper, Jigger.

So sheep #5 is Pip, #10 is Dick, #15 is Bumper, and #20 is Jigger.  Is that why Jack Aubrey calls a full glass (“A toast! Bumpers all round!”) a bumper?  They’re not all nonsense words, either; "pip" is apparently derived from Welsh pump. It’s not just one mad farmer’s habit, either; variants of the system have been collected from Yorkshire, Ireland, and (!) Ohio.

See also costermonger’s back-talk, which is not the sort of back-talk your mother warned you against.

Update: I am informed that school boys today still revel in these counting systems. Can’t blame them. Also, a variant of “Cattera, Hona, Dick” – eight, nine, ten – is, apparently, “Hickory, Dickory, Dock”, which everyone knows, and especially the mouse.