Saturday, 25 June 2016

Odd words from the Essex Wills

Continuing my posts on the vocabulary of the Essex Wills and its place in English lexical history, an introduction to which can be found here.

The Essex Wills are naturally full of words for household and farm goods. The majority are words that are still used, though the things to which they are applied may now be different in design or appearance. A large majority are words, or meanings of words, that are no longer used, but are carefully recorded in dictionaries, and especially in the Oxford English Dictionary. But a significant number have escaped notice by lexicographers and yet can be found, often in large numbers, in wills, inventories, and other non-literary documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and sometimes in earlier and later documents). Please note that I record the absence of terms from Early English Books Online not in order to criticize that inestimable resource but to highlight the gap between the language we find in non-literary texts and that of the printed book, especially the literary text.

Here are some odds and ends of vocabulary that don’t belong to any particular category.


The familiar phrase out of kilter has obscure origins. The OED, under kelter2, kilter, defines it thus: 

Good condition, order; state of health or spirits. Used in the phrases out of kelter, in (good, high) kelter, to get into kelter.’ 

In the etymology it says: 

‘Etym[ology] obscure. Widely diffused in Eng[lish] dial[ect] from Northumb[erland] and Cumb[erland] to Cornwall, and occasional in literature. More frequent in U.S. (in form kilter).’ 

Intriguingly, the earliest examples in the OED, as well as many later ones, are from America: 1628 in Massachusetts for ‘out of kilter’ and 1643 for ‘out of kelter’. Both examples refer to firearms. Nothing of the word’s earlier history is known. It must of course have originated in England.

The Essex Wills (1597 VII. 83), in the will of John Gibson, a miller of West Bergholt, contain the following example of an otherwise unknown verbal noun kiltering

tools and implements belonging to the mills as mill bills, hammers and such things as belong to the ‘kiltring’ of the mills

Gibson owned both a corn mill and a fulling mill. A mill bill is ‘a steel adze fixed in a wooden handle, used for dressing and cracking millstones’ (OED). It is obvious that kiltering here means getting something into operational order, possibly in particular a device like a millstone or musket that has grooves which need to be sharp and clean. It rather implies, though does not make certain, the prior existence of a verb to kilter. This verb, in much the same meaning, is attested 326 years later, also from Essex, in:

1923 E. Gepp Essex Dialect Dictionary (ed. 2) 20 kilter up, to repair an implement, or anything.

This occurrence of kiltring in the Essex Wills will does not solve the mystery of the word’s etymology but it makes clear that it belongs to the realm of technology and takes it back thirty years. It might suggests a connection between Essex and the early New England settlement, except that we know that the noun kilter was widespread throughout the country, at least at a later date—and there is no clear reason to suppose that the word spread from Essex or the southeast.

Early English Books Online provide one example of kilter earlier than both OED and the Essex Wills:

1582 J. Ludham tr. R. Gwalther Homilies ix. f. 67, [STC 25012 image 75] So is it necessarye that the riuers of heauenlye doctrine should flowe into the mindes of men being otherwise barren and out of  kilter, to the end they may be made fitte for those thinges, that are prescribed vnto vs of the Lord.

Ludham was vicar of Withersfield in Suffolk.

They also have one that is only earlier than OED:

1621 Taylor, Thomas The parable of the sower 153 [STC (2nd ed.) 23840 image 89] The good Husbandman, who would keepe his ground in good kilter. [Occurs twice] 

Taylor (1576-1632), however, was born in Richmond, Yorks; he was at Cambridge (where he could have learnt the expression) but otherwise lived in Reading and London. But both these last two examples relate to tilling the soil rather than maintaining a tool.

And EEBO also have two other sixteenth century examples that shed some light on the word.

1654 J. Norton Orthodox Evangelist iv. 63 [Wing N1320 image 41] The upper wheel of a Clock going well, and turning about the lower wheel out of kilter, is the cause of its going, but not of its going amiss.

1674 J. Ray Coll. Eng. Words not generally Used (South & East Country Words) 69 Kelter or  Kilter; Frame, order, Procul dubio (inquit Skinnerus) à Dan. Opkilter succingo, Kilter, cingo; vel forte à voce cultura. Non absurde etiam deflecti posset à Teut. Kelter, torcular, Skinnerus quem adisis.

Norton (1606-1663) was a teacher at Ipswich, Mass., and born in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, and his example relates to a mechanical device.

Ray in the seventeenth century definitely ascribes the word to the south and east. 

The English Dialect Dictionary gives kilters sb. pl. Ess[ex]. Tools, implements; the component parts of anything. 

Whereas under kelter sb. the same dictionary gives the word as widespread in Scotland and England as well as America.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this, but tentatively there seems to be a meaning specifically relating to tools and mechanisms, with a derived verb that is associated with Essex and the surrounding area; and the word may have been exported to America from this base.


It’s a surprise not to find Maytide in the OED (which has revised this part of the alphabet). The Essex Wills have three examples, from 1576 (III. 205), 1588 (XI. 218), and an uncertain date between 1583–92 (V. 114) 

Further examples are not uncommon:

1593 B. Rich Greenes Newes both from Heauen & Hell [STC 12259] sig. D3v,At May-tyde, who was the ring-leader for the fetching home of a May-pole, but I.

1624 G. Goodwin Babels Balm [STC 12030] 14 The Rule that  May-tide Lords of Mis-rule finde, Such Lord, such Lawes let be to Rome assign’d.

1739 Laws relating to Poor 134 One John Crowdey the 19th of Febr. 1710, came from Shipley to Easthed in Horsham, and bargain’d with him to serve him till Maytide, for one Shilling per Week. [Occurs several times in this case report]

1755 J. Strange Rep. Adjudged Cases Chancery, King’s Bench, Common Pleas, & Exchequer I. 83 Mich. 12 Ann. Paroch. Horsham v. Shipley there was a hiring from 19 February to Maytide from thence to Lady-day, then to May-tide again, then to Lady-day, and then to the next May-tide; but there being no contract for a year, the court held it no settlement. [Same case as preceding.]

1793 W. L. Bowles Sonnet XXV in Sonnets (ed. 9, 1805) 32 The shrubs and laurels which I lov'd to tend, Thinking their May-tide fragrance might delight.

1868 Gardener’s Monthly June 161/1 Then, what is the use of writing Hints for June, when not even the May-tide has come?

1997 E. Muir Ritual in Early Mod. Hist. iii. 94 Rogation week..frequently overlapped with Maytide.

no elsewhere

A curious expression meaning ‘nowhere else’ found once in the Essex Wills:

1585 (V. 302) in the parlour and chamber and noelsewhere

You might think it a freak, but here are some further examples:

1609 S. Grahame Anat. Humors f. 31, If a man intrude him selfe in a Ladies bed-chamber, & look vpon every thing about him, he shal think him selfe to be no else where, but in an evil deformed shop of Merchandise.

1851 Indicator Jan. 146 Yet need we look no elsewhere for the noblest examples.

1855 Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Mag. Apr. 374/1 There only, then, will I be wed. No elsewhere!


This occurs once in the Essex Wills:

1570 (IX. 74) an old cauldron that we use to pot ashes in

Now, perhaps this is just a variant spelling of put: they use the old cauldron to put ashes in. If that is the explanation, no further exploration is needed.

If it is really pot, it cannot belong to OED’s pot v.1, v.2, or v.3; it looks like a use of pot v.4 in a general sense ‘put something into a pot’, but there is no suitable sense of that verb, which dates from 1616. 

Moreover, the collocation with ‘ashes’ seems to imply some connection with potash n. At the latter entry in OED, however, there is no explanation of the reason for the first element of the compound: one may infer that the plant material burnt to make the ashes was burnt in a pot. There is only one example (1504) of the noun (in its plural form) earlier than our phrase. The next two examples, preceding scientific use in the 1660s, are both from Virginia.


Compounds like this one are quite common in the Essex Wills. This happens to occur only once:

1586 (V. 65) short-legged brass pot

Earlier and later examples can be found, though it’s not in the OED:

1540 J. Fitzherbert Boke of Husbandry [STC 10996] sig. G4, The fyfte [property of the fox], to be  shorte legged.

1612 D. Lyndesay Satyre (18??) 509 (l. 3517) Schort-leggit men, I se, be Bryds bell! Will nevir cum thair, thay steppis bene sa wyde.

1675 H. Hexham Eng. & Nether-Dutch Dict. (new ed.) Kort beenigh, Short-legged.

1740 Mem. Royal Soc. V. 262 The short-legged spiders, which are the most common, always find out some place, secure from the wind and the rain, to make their bags in.

But it is noticeable that examples referring to things (those above all related to people or animals) are hard to find outside the Essex Wills.


Perhaps the testator in the Essex Wills is literally bequeathing some string:

1569 (IX. 174) the residue of my ‘twyne’

Or could this be an uncharacteristically poetic expression meaning ‘the rest of my life’? Compare (in the OED at twine n. 1b): 

1595 G. Markham Most Honorable Trag. Sir R. Grinuile cxxiii, Behold a goddesse shall my lifes twine breake.

And additionally:

1578 T. Blenerhasset Mirror for Magistrates Author’s Ep., I looked that Parcæ shoulde haue shread my twyne before my returne (16th century). 

?1604 R. Williams Poore Mans Pittance in F. Furnivall Ballads from Manuscripts (1873) II. 122 You Fatall Sisters, websters of my lyfe, Spin slowe, wynde softe, and cutt not yet my twyne.

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