It’s always a glorious moment when arcane and super-local British slang rolls out of the immaculate lips of American stars. Especially when those lips are also contorted into trying to do the accent and it swiftly becomes any accent, from cockney to yokel and ranging across Wales and Carlisle.
So, when Dolly Parton launched the Nottingham branch of her Imagination Library charity—in which people raise money to provide books for children in deprived areas—with a cheery stab at the local phrase “ay up, me duck,” it felt good. Really good:
Now, this isn’t the first time that phrase has come tripping off the tongue of an American superstar. You may remember last November’s Hollywood Film Awards, at which Angelina Jolie presented an award to rising star Jack O’Connell with the same sentence. And you may also remember asking “what exactly does ay up me duck mean?”
Well, ay up—or ayup, eyup—is a relatively common way of saying hello across central and northern England. That location is no coincidence, because it derives from the Norse/Swedish Se Upp, which means look up, or watch out. The center and North West of England was repeatedly invaded by Vikings during the early centuries of the last millennium, and a lot of their language has worked its way into contemporary English slang.
As for me duck, well that’s part of a wider tradition of referring affectionately or respectfully to the person you are addressing, one that exists across huge swathes of British slang. Me is just a repurposed pronunciation of my, and the following term could be almost anything; from the affectionate darling, dear, love, handsome, or beauty, to ornithological terms such as bird or duck.
Mind you, duck itself isn’t a reference to the bird, it’s a throwback to the Saxon ducas, which was a term of respect not unlike the Middle English terms duc or duk, both used to describe a leader and a clear root for the title Duke.
Here’s Jack explaining the phrase to Conan O’Brien:
And all any American has to do, should they find themselves required to say a fond “ay up, me duck” to a friend, is remember where the comma goes. Say it like you’d say “hi there, my friend” or “hello, old buddy”, and not like a series of strange syllables that you’ve just invented in a moment of boredom.
And go easy on the accent. It’s scary.
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