There’s not a lot to do in the British countryside, especially if you’re whiling the decades away waiting for someone to invent the internet. So you can’t blame the residents of a tiny island nation for choosing to pass the time creating quite so many cute little names for the common woodlouse. For entertainment value, it will have very much been the Facebook of its day.
And they’ve really made a go of it too. There are over 40 different varieties of woodlouse common to the British Isles, but there are a far greater variety of different names and spellings for the species as a whole, depending on location, imagination and the ability to think laterally. Too many to count, in fact.
Towards the west of England—Devon, to be precise—woodlice are also known as chiggypigs, or chickypigs or choogeypigs. A little farther north and east in Dorset, they’re chiggywigs, and up past Bristol in Gloucestershire they’re chuckypigs or charliepigs. You get the gist. Just think of a rotund landlady in a Dickens novel—or a similarly matronly hedgehog in a Beatrix Potter story—imagine what her surname might be, and you’re basically there.
You’ll notice a definite porcine theme developing there too, and this continues across a great deal of the woodlouse nicknames that have stuck over the years. The people of Bristol have been known to call them slunkerpigs, or there’s woodpigs, timperpigs and penny sows. In fact, some people from Cornwall and Devon managed to achieve double bacon by calling them sowpigs (or, as it came out in the local accent; zowpigs).
In Cornwall, they are also known as grammasows. And this is a crossover point between two naming traditions. It’s half pig and half grandparent, and some of the other names—granddad gravys, granddads, granny greys, granny granshers, do seem to infer a certain age and respectability to these tiny critters. In fact, in some parts of the country they have been called croogers if small, and granfy croogers if larger.
These are then subject to the slight variations in spelling and gummed-over language that comes from years of being misheard as children and repeated through strong regional accents. So we get: granfers, granfergravys, granfygroogers, gramphycoochies and gramfycouchers.
Over in the South East, there’s a dairy theme. The people of Kent call woodlice cheesybugs or cheeserockers, whereas neighboring Surrey prefer cheeselogs or cheeseybobs. Which, with local distortion, also becomes chiselbugs, cheesers and cheeseballs.
And you can’t get too far into cute names for things without throwing a monkey in there somewhere, so in some places they’re called monkeypedes, which is sometimes changed to monkeypeas, and to complete the livestock circle, monkeypigs. Peabugs is also a thing, as is pillbugs and sourbugs (apparently they are edible, if you’re wondering).
Bucking the trend entirely, Northern Ireland and Scotland (and New Zealand and Australia, who have large Irish and Scottish communities) call them slaters, and occasionally slateybeetles. There’s even a Scots expression of approval that mentions this: “better than a slater up your nose” is high (well, medium high) praise indeed.
They also have their own names in the Welsh language, but again, with the same themes. Moch y coed, meaning woodpigs (or treepigs), and pryfaid lludw, meaning ashflies.
In the East Midlands, they are leatherjackets, in Tyneside they are dampers and in Yorkshire they are billybuttons—there are also billybakers and bellybuttons. Liverpool has peabugs and nutbugs, North Wales has crunchy bats, Norfolk has pishamares, Bedfordshire has ticktocks, Southhampton has flumps, Dorset has carpetmonsters and East Sussex has ogopogos. And on the Isle of Man, where they do everything slightly differently, woodlice are called parson pigs.
But don’t go mad trying to figure out why other insects or animals didn’t get the same treatment. You don’t hear people in Barnstaple referring to bees as honeybuggers, or stripevesters; or pigs as fieldlice or slopchompers. Maybe they should.
Note: Of course, these terms are part of an oral tradition, and so while there are pockets of commonly used terms in certain areas, they are by no means definitive, and do get passed down through families even as those families move around the country. So if you excitedly show a grammasow to a friend from Penryn and they look confused and explain that it’s just a woodlouse, don’t be too disheartened.Read More