Reflections on dreckly

We’ll get around to dreckly dreckly. But first, a week or two ago the online dating site eharmony was reported as having completed a survey of accents to see which were the most ‘attractive’. The ‘Cornish accent’ came in 20th out of 20! Obviously, such ‘research’ probably tells us more about the stereotypes of the Cornish held by the respondents than they do about the ‘Cornish accent’. That’s an interesting subject in itself but let’s stick with accent for now.

In the survey people were asked to rank accents after hearing ‘an actor’ reading a couple of sentences. Was this ‘actor’ Cornish? Or did he or she put on what the media seem to think is a Cornish accent – a ‘faux-pirate’ mummerset travesty? If they were a native, which part of Cornwall did they come from? Which accent did they have? For there are, or were, before the mass in-migration of the past half-century or more, two distinct ‘Cornish’ accents. East of Bodmin we had the western branch of the Wessex accent of English. West of Bodmin there was a quite different accent, the differences reflecting the historic presence of the Cornish language.

Recently, there has been some research on the accents of English in Cornwall. However, their historic presence and use and their contemporary decline have yet to be adequately described. Moving from accent to dialect, one dialect word still widely in use is dreckly, a central part of Cornish identity. Dreckly is a temporal term indicating some indeterminate time in the future, maybe tomorrow, possibly next week, could be next year. Particularly popular among builders, the term is still widely used. So much so that in my childhood I thought dreckly was an entirely separate word from directly, its presumed origin.

But when did it appear? It’s not in the glossary of dialect words in William Sandys’ Specimens of the Cornish Dialect, published in 1846. Furthermore, neither does it appear in the glossaries of John Tregellas, the most prolific dialect writer of the 1850s and 60s. A quick skim through some of his tales reveals no examples of the word. If anyone does have a reference from the 1800s I’d be delighted to hear of it. (For some observations on dialect literature in the 1800s see my Industrial Celts, pp.63-69).

As Patrick Laviolette has proposed, dreckly is a ‘fine example of the cultural use of irony’, indicative of a ‘different’ way of doing things, meandering and roundabout. But why did it arise?

Here’s a couple of possible theories, for what they’re worth. Dreckly grew out of the word ‘directly’ at some point between the 1870s and the 1930s. It could have been a response to the more makeshift economy that emerged after mining began to contract, one that was necessarily more flexible, where deadlines became secondary to guaranteeing a quantity of work. Or perhaps it was a result of a deliberate distancing from the mainstream English use of directly, a response to an influx of visitors and new residents? Expect we’ll know dreckly.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on dreckly

  1. Maybe (following on from the last observation) it could be an example of Cornish humour in the face of tourists, who impatiently wanted “everything at once”.

    More broadly, my father Roger often commented that the great neglected treasure in Cornwall was not the language, but the dialect. He loved the huge variety of dialect words and thought they were at great risk of loss, which I am sure is true. Probably many he knew have now more or less vanished, as we standardize our English according to both what we hear on TV (etc) and indeed in some kind of response to the perceived lack of fashionability of a Cornish accent.


  2. I was interested to read your speculative comments on the origins of dreckly. I’ve long held the view that the word originated when large numbers of people were employed in domestic service. A maid or a gardener would be told to do something “directly” and although this could mean “in a little while” it is more usual for it to imply immediacy. Somewhere in the late 19th century or early 20th century a wag converted this to dreckly which, as we know, certainly does not mean immediate or even rapid action! In other words a satirical twist as good as anything in Private Eye.

    My daughter teaches in South Wales and has commented on a local phrase, “now in a minute”. Maybe its origins are similar to the one that I have offered for dreckly.

    David Owen (Welsh name but Redruth born and bred!)


  3. “Dreckly” goes back earlier than the 1870s. My tinner great-grandfather emigrated from St Just to the US in the 1850’s and my father used it all the time in exactly the Cornish context. The expression is still common in the coal mining country of North Alabama and never fails to confuse outsiders. It was fun to hear it on my recent visit to Cornwall.


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