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REMINDER: Giveaway II, to mark the US publication of BAD THINGS, will be taking place next Tuesday, May 5th. See post below for details.

I think I may have just solved an enduring family mystery. When I say ‘mystery’, don’t get over-excited (or even mildly so). This doesn’t involve divining the location of some long-lost treasure trove, or discovering why my father’s side of the family have three ears. It’s just a word nerd thing —and relax, it doesn’t involve me getting medieval over some piece of punctuation*.

My mother’s mother (known as Nana) had a range of idiosyncratic sayings, due presumably to having being born, beguiling her entire life and eventually dying in the same small village deep in the gothic heart of Cambridgeshire.

One of these was the expression ‘Peter, peter’ – muttered in tones either scandalized or ominous – whenever anyone (usually a small child, and often me) was seen to be drinking a liquid in a manner she deemed profligately speedy. My mother, sister and I were intrigued, and asked her what it meant: she of course, said it just meant ‘Peter, peter.’

But just now, perusing Snake River Press’s appealing edition of The Reverend W. D. Parish’s “A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect”, I wonder if I’ve found the solution. Parish notes that in 1875 it was current within Sussex dialect to say ‘What a peter-grevious child you are!’ He suggests ‘peter-grevious’ might be a corruption of the French (or Anglo-Norman, I guess) expression – ‘petit grief’. In other words (approximately)… ‘You small source of grief’…

Or, in modern parlance, ‘you little pain in the arse’.

Which makes me wonder whether ‘peter, peter’ comes from a similar root, and started out as ‘petit, petit’ – meaning ‘small, small’, or ‘only drink a little at a time’?

As neither my Nana nor mother are still mired on the earthly plane — and I’ve never heard anyone else either use or even refer to the expression — there’s only my sister and I left to give a flying toss.

But I like this theory. If you happen to know different or better, feel free to let me know…

@ememess

* Normal snarkiness will be resumed as soon as possible.


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Michael Marshall (Smith): novelist, screenwriter and sitting-place for cats.

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