Sound and vision blog

04 January 2013

upstairs fains I downstairs bagsy

Jonnie Robinson. Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics, writes:

Continuing the theme of a recent blog post (there's summat about nowt as gets us goat - 28.11.12) I was struck again over the holiday period by the difficulty of getting the dialogue right in regional and/or period drama. For most Downton Abbey fans the apparent demise of Matthew Crawley at the end of this year's Christmas special was probably the high point in terms of suspense. For me it came at 38 mins. 34 secs. when under-butler Thomas Barrow said fains I tell Mr Carson [= 'I'd rather not tell Mr Carson'].

I suspect much of Downton Abbey's success derives from its affectionate portrayal of sociolinguistic nuances between the aristocratic RP most distinctively represented by Maggie Smith's wonderful Lady Grantham and the various regional vernaculars represented 'downstairs'. The expression fains I is indeed authentic in that it is recorded from this period in authoritative dictionaries (e.g. OED online cites Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street from 1913: he could shout 'fain I' to be rid of an obligation and 'bags I' to secure an advantage). Dig beneath the surface, however, and I wonder if such a phrase is more likely to belong to the Crawley family's linguistic repertoire than that of a local servant - presumably a Yorkshireman, although Barrow is, I sense, played by Robert James-Collier with a Manchester accent.

During research in the 1950s into children's folklore and customs Peter and Iona Opie collected a wide range of phrases used as truce terms (e.g. pax, barley), when claiming precedence (e.g. bagsy, foggy) or when avoiding undesirable roles or tasks (e.g. fains I, bagsy not me). According to the Opies (Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959 p.140) fains I was pretty much restricted to private school children. Perhaps then, Barrow's use reflects the form most natural to Downton Abbey creator and Ampleforth School Old Boy, Julian Fellowes? Sound recordings made by the Opies are available online and the British Library's Playtimes website features extracts from their survey and similar studies spanning over 100 years. They capture the regional and social variation in children's playground language and offer us a glimpse of what a character like Barrow might have said in this situation. My hunch would be bagsy not tell Mr Carson.


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