Recently I was watching an episode of The Great British Sewing Bee and one of the judges, Esme Young – who is fabulous – was looking at a stitch and said it was skew-whiff.
It startled me – not because I didn’t know what it meant, but because I had never heard anyone outside of my family use the term. In fact, it’s not the first time I’ve heard an odd but familiar term while watching British television.
I’ve been researching my family genealogy since we moved and it’s funny to realize that these words and phrases have come down through generations. Parents born in Scotland and England came here and had children, but spoke to them in accents and colloquialisms.
My maternal grandfather’s father came to Canada from Coventry, Warwickshire, England as a teenager. Basically docked here and signed up to serve with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He was a carpenter, which was something the air force needed in the First World War, and between his arrival and the end of the war he met the woman he would marry. Almost exactly one year later my grandfather was born.
He would have made any staid, stiff-upper-lip Brit proud.
His mother was born in Canada, but both of her parents were new arrivals from England, and she would have grown up with the accent and vocabulary.
(Also, according to Gramps, her family could have inherited an estate that came with a title at one point but opted to not take it and allowed some cousins to carry on).
Strangely, my grandmother is the one I remember saying Skew Whiff. Her family came to Canada from Scotland but had been here for several generations on both sides before she was born.
(In fact, my ancestors on Tutu’s side were one of the founding families of the area in which I now live).
Maybe it’s just a family history of language. We say things like skew whiff, biffy and starkers; my Tutu tells me to mind my table manners in case I ever have tea with the Queen – sadly now no longer a possibility; my mother regularly called my obstreperous, which I gather is not a regular word parents use. My husband makes fun of some of my pronunciations and turns of phrase.
And now my daughter has started matching our patterns. Their vocabulary has been exceptional from an early age. At a doctor’s appointment with the baby, we had to fill out a checklist on developmental milestones.
There was a check for having at least 20 words. Twenty. We laughed. This kid started babbling within weeks and hasn’t stopped talking since.
*Side note: I have learned from listening to Miriam Margolyes’ book that to be ‘sent to coventry’ is to be ostracized from a group. My grandfather was proud to be descended from the place and I now proudly wear a Coventry City scarf. I find this term offensive.