Patois of nearly 80 years ago

29th April 2021

11 January 1950.

By 'Guernesiais'.  This newspaper article predates the publication of Marie de Garis' Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernesiais.

Interpretation of words familiar today

With the revived interest in Guernsey-French it is interesting to glance through the pages of Métivier's 'Franco-Normand Dictionnaire,' which was published nearly 80 years ago. Rare today, this book remains the standard work on patois, and with a copy at his elbow the student has the best of guides, provided, that is, that he possesses a knowledge of French.

One must remember that, although Métivier was a philologist of the first order, being human he was fallible, and, moreover, some of his interpretations are arbitrary. Nevertheless one may safely abide by his judgment in nealy every instance, although it must not be forgotten that his book is not exhaustive, and fairly often we may seek a word, only to find that he does not include it.

I should like you to browse with me through the pages of this now precious volume, and see how Métivier interpreted many words — place-names among them — with which we are familiar today.

Take Amarreurs as a start. This means 'moorings', and at Grand Havre we find boats moored at Les Amarreurs, hard by the little fishing haven of Les Platiers (probably 'the flat rocks', although Métivier does not say so.)

Crab with a tail

Les Baissières means low-lying land, inclined to be swampy, and this answers the description of that district nowadays.

Banâtre means a crab-basket, or, as we still call it, a panier à crabe à co, meaning a basket for lobsters, for co means a tail and a crab with a tail was a lobster!

Les Banques means the sea-shore, evidently deriving from banks of shingle or sand, yet the term only applies to our eastern coast, despite the fact that 'the back of the island' has similar banques.


Le Bourg means a hamlet and this appropriately describes the collection of buildings hard by the Forest Church which bear that name.

Switching over to northern Guernsey we find that Braye literally means mud or mire, and we recall the days when a tidal arm of the sea made most of the Vale Parish an island. Its bed at low water must have been very miry.

Cache, a place-name often encountered in the plural, signifies a farmyard, as opposed to a Camp, which, again met with in plural form, means unenclosed cultivated land. Around Saumarez Mill, St Martin's, were once such stretches of arable, now, alas!, built over.

Overfall rocks

Métivier states that Casquets are 'overfall rocks', and such are to be found in many areas of these waters, although none so big as the Casquets themsleves. This dismisses the suppostion that the word meant 'casket', and allies it more to 'cascade.'

Cauchie (derived from chausée) means a pier, and the fishing jetties of today are still styled thus. 'Causeway' is probably related to the word.

Everyone is familiar with the garment called a guernsey. The French word for this is vareuse, and the patois equivalent corset d'oeuvre, meaning literally 'a working vest.' Its English alternative is a 'Guernsey frock.'

Les Côtils are hillsides near the shore, and those east of Cambridge Park are aptly named. A courtil, on the other hand, is a field bounded by hedges, or a town garden surrounded by walls. Couture, declared Métivier, means cultivated land.

Hide and seek

When Guernsey children play hide and seek they still say they are playing Cook. Really this should be spet 'Couk', but its origin even Métivier does not reveal.

Beyond Fort Pembroke, at L'Ancresse, is a rock named Crève Coeur, meaning in French 'heartbreak.' Some people have thought it shoudl mean 'Grève Coeur' ( a heart-shaped bay), but the rock is located in La Baie de la Jaonneuse (a word which Métivier does not define, but which refers to gorse, abundant in the vicinity), and the philologist states that Crève Coeur is the name of a French town.

A croute is a small cattle enclosure, and this being so, one wonders why only one locality (again in the plural) bears this name today. Two more agricultural terms next present themselves: essart (newly cleared ground), and falle (enclosure). Frie, incidentally, means grassland.

Two meanings

There are one or two Friquets in Guernsey, and the word signifies a playground, or green.

In Galet we have two meanings, only the first of which is given by Métivier.  It stands for a beach, and what is now the South Esplanande was once known as Le Galet de Heaume. The second meaning is what we style today a Guernsey biscuit.

Island housewives still make Gâche Mêlaie (a palatable kind of cake in which apples are used), and Métivier defines this as 'mixed Gâche , a variety of Gâche à poummes.'

What is the difference between a hèche and a héchet? The former is a field gate and the latter a wicket gate. Ozanne's Mill, at the top of Les Ruettes Brayes, was once known as Le Hèchet (sic).

Rarely heard

Houmet, often encountered in Guernsey, is 'pasturage by the sea, or nearly an island.' The former definition applies to Les Houmets near Saumarez Park, and the latter to the islets which bear this name. When they first came to be named thus they must have been peninsulas, which time has formed into islets.

Hure is a sterile slope, or a headland, mare is a pool, and maresquet a little marsh. Marais (undefined by Métivier) is a large marsh. Masse is a mound surmounted by a windmill, and there is a 'Masse' near Les Capelles and another near the Castel Schools. it is interesting ot note tha a windmill stood on the school's site, and evidently there was once another near Les Capelles.

Mess, a word rarely heard today, is the diminutive of Messire or Monsieur. At one time the only Messieurs were the Seigneurs of certain fiefs, the Governor, Bailiff, Jurats and Rectors.

Animal pen

Returning to matters agricultural, we find that Mielles meanas unculitvated land on the shores. One finds Les Mielles bordering L'Ancresse. Parc was an animal pen, and Park Street is a relic of La Contrée du Parc of former days.

Although we speak of the Great Russel and the Little Russel today, there was a time when they were styled Le Grand Rué and Le Petit Rué. This word means 'an arm of the sea', which is appropriate, and one speculates as to how the word 'Russel' crept into use.

We all know the Charroterie, sometines foolishly anglicised into 'Cherry Tree.' Actually the original word was Tchiéroterie, meaning a tannery, and it has nothing to do with the coachbuilders' shops which once existed nearby.

Muddy place

Talking of wagons, Métivier says that Touillet means a thole-pin, a contrivance which prevented a wheel from running off the axle.

Le Truchot must have been a muddy place at one time for truchotair means to splash about in mud. Evidently the sea washed up here at high spring tides, before the esplanade was constructed. Another of these miry places was Les Varendes, which means marsh or bogs.

These are but a selection of familiar names, but they furnish a fascinating sidelight into Guernsey's colourful past.