February 15, 2014

While we were reflecting on the frustrating, ‘people-pleasing’ behaviour of others, my wife remembered an expression her mother had for people who presented a false, insincere bonhomie: she called them Grinnygogs. Beyond being a description of the hollow insincerity of those who smile to your face, I was intrigued by the history and meaning that must be concealed behind such an archaic-sounding phrase. A subterranean, lexically-prompted, association for me was with T.C. Lethbridge’s ‘slightly’ fanciful book, Gogmagog: the Buried Gods (1957, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul). In this endlessly fascinating book Lethbridge describes how he ‘rediscovered’ long-lost hill figures cut into the turf on the slopes of Wandlebury hillfort, in the Gogmagog Hills of Cambridgeshire. Nothing to do with grinnygogs, though (besides, the cowled goddess-figure upon a white horse doesn’t appear to be smiling anyway…).

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Magog must normally be regarded as ‘the old woman’ of folklore. Like the Cailleach, her name survives on rounded hills in England (Lethbridge 1957: 164).

There must be some folk history to it, as evidenced by ‘The Grinnigogs’, the name of a group of Yorkshire-based entertainers who perform mediaeval, Tudor and Victorian music. The word is also integral to the title of a children’s book, published in 1981 and turned into a television drama in 1983: ‘The Witches and the Grinnygog is an intelligent story of mediaeval witchcraft crossing into the modern world (as a survival of pre-Christian traditions), folklore, ghosts and time-slips’, as this review describes it. It all sounds pertinent to the general drift of this blog…


In truth, I’d never heard of this book by Dorothy Edwards, nor of its television adaptation, filmed in Bishops Waltham and Titchfield, Hampshire – places not more than ten miles from where I live. I doubt if my late mother-in-law – born and brought up in Kent, with Brighton ancestry via her dad – picked up the word from a children’s programme either.

But, wait! Here it is… on page 136 of a pdf of The Dictionary of the Kentish Dialect (Kent Archaeological Society 2008):


n. Perhaps someone with a grinning, stupid face. “You stand there just like a grinnygog.” – Plumstead, West Kent L.R.A.G. Notes on ‘A Dictionary of Kentish Dialect & Provincialisms’ (c.1977).

Well, that sums it up pretty nicely!

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