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Grinnygogs

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…

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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):

Grinnygog

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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