AS THE town of Witney developed during the later 17th and early 18th centuries, a large amount of infilling took place.

Land (often the old burgage plots) behind the main street frontages was being utilized for workshops and additional dwelling space. Access to this new accommodation was gained through carriage entrances and narrow alleyways called ‘tuers’. You may recall last week I posed a question asking, ‘Have you ever come across a tuer?’ Well, now you know!

The subsequent questions arising from this one are, ‘Where does the word come from?’ and maybe ‘Do we really care!’ The derivation of the word is hard to discover. None of my dictionaries include it and an internet search offers nothing much that I can find. The only suggestion that I can offer is that the word may be related to the French verb ‘tuer’. Which unhelpfully means ‘to kill’. Apparently it’s derived from an old Latin word, ‘tutare’ that can mean to guard or defend – but that doesn’t really help us a lot either! The best I can suggest is that it may be a precursor of the expression, ‘dead end’. That’s not so strange when one considers the term, ‘cul de sac’. This French expression used widely today literally means a bag with only one opening or, the bottom of a bag. One writer suggests it was the inspiration for Tolkien’s character Bilbo Baggins’ home, ‘Bag End’.

Some words, particularly those used in a local context, are just words passed down, eventually falling out of use into the mysterious realm called archaic. Maybe the word ‘tuer’ will continue to exist only in street names such as Tuer Street in Leyland, Preston – but that’s way out of our region. Another difficulty in discovering the origins of a word is its pronunciation. One of our neighbours in Kingham, an old lady who was raised in the region, once referred to something being in the ‘orville’, at least that’s what I thought she said. Realising that she wasn’t talking about a green duck puppet operated by Keith Harris (this was some time back) I questioned further and discovered that she was referring to the ‘hovel’ in her back garden! Natives of the area still used such expressions for a garden shed. Whether that’s still the case or not, I don’t know – there are not many left of that generation.

Last time, I wrote about Melvyn Bragg’s book and television series, ‘The Adventure of English’ during which he charts the evolution of our Mother Tongue. With all the influences that have contrived to shape the English language it’s not really surprising that attempts were at one time made to control its development by stemming the flow of new words being added. Bragg explains the argument of the 15th and 16th centuries known as the ‘Inkhorn Controversy’. The term comes from the small inkwells that scholars carried with them on their academic travels and became used for the sort of words with which the erudite would regale their readers. In an attempt to stem this apparent corruption of the English language, people like Sir John Cheke, himself a 16th century scholar, proposed that these ‘pretentious’ introductions be minimized.

“I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges… for then doth our tung naturallie and praisablie utter her meaning when she boroweth no counterfeitness of other tunges to attire herself withal…”

Apart from his obvious success with phonetic spelling, his efforts were futile and English continued to evolve with a plethora of ‘inkhorns’ introduced by Shakespeare, Marlowe and other linguistic innovators from the country’s most inspirational and descriptive writers. Thus it is that Scrabble players can revel in such words as ‘growlery’ – where you go when in a bad mood, ‘puckfist’, a person who dominates conversations, and ‘shivviness’, an old Yorkshire expression referring to the discomfort one feels when attired in new underwear! It seems there’s a word for just about everything.

As if all this hodgepodge of vocabulary wasn’t enough to thoroughly confuse the linguistic student there is another element to throw into the concoction – grammar, particularly in the shape of that sneaky little twister of terms, the comma. Apart from the often misplaced apostrophe that is often randomly inserted in plural’s (!), the comma has the power to completely alter the meaning of a sentence with the simplest of omissions or extraneous insertion. You’ve most likely heard of, or read, the book ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ by Lynne Truss. The title describes a panda going into a bar. After eating a sandwich he takes out a revolver and fires it into the air. The bar owner asks him what he thinks he’s doing and the panda throws a book to him. “This is a badly punctuated wildlife manual,” he growled, “Look me up.” The barman opens the book and under the entry for Panda he reads, “Panda. Large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Perhaps I can give you another, more radical example, ‘A woman without her man, is nothing.’ Wait, what am I trying to say? What travesty is this? No, what I meant to say needs a small shift and an extra comma. ‘A woman, without her, man is nothing.’ See what I mean – the whole sentence has the opposite meaning just by adding a comma! English is a vibrant, constantly evolving language and it’s important that we treasure its wonderful history!