Bostin – The history of the word.

Article by Carl Chinn.

Bostin is our word. It belongs to the Black Country and Birmingham alone. It is not used in Coventry to the east, in North Staffordshire, in most of Worcestershire to the south, or in Shropshire to the west. As such bostin is a rare dialect word, for most of our old words and sayings can be found elsewhere in what was once the Anglo-Saxon region of West Mercia, which included what is now South Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.

So whilst the accent, the sound of the voice, might vary between those counties and within them, many dialect words are common. In the Black Country and Brum we say clammed for hungry, whilst in Shropshire and South Lancashire they say clemmed; in the Potteries, wench is used as much as it is the West Midlands; in the Forest of Dean older folk still greet each other with ‘Ow Bist?’ as they do in Netherton, Old Hill and Cradley Heath; whilst miskin for dunghill and later dustbins was heard as much in Herefordshire as it was in the back streets of Aston and Small Heath.

But bostin does not reach out beyond that pocket of south Staffordshire, north Worcestershire, and north west Warwickshire that form the modern West Midlands. So where does the word come from? The late Ted Walker, a proud Wednesbury man, compiled The Definitive Black Country Dictionary in 1996. Ted was co-founder of Wednesbury Civic Society in 1951, an ex-Tipton Harrier, and treasurer of Wednesbury Amateur Boxing Club for many years. He was committed to the well being of the Black Country and the recognition of its dialect and history. His book was deeply researched and it is an important work that deserves greater attention.

Ted traced the origins of many Black Country words to Anglo-Saxon, or Old English as it is also called. For example, wammel, meaning a mongrel dog, comes from hwaemelec; babby is from babban; mithered is derived from mythered; and wussa (as in ‘I ay wussa off’) harks back to wyrsa. As for bostin, Ted believed that it hails from bosten, signifying something to boast about.

In the book I co-wrote with Steve Thorne called Proper Brummie. A Dictionary of Birmingham Words and Phrases (2001), we followed Ted’s account of bostin, but the debate about whether the word should be included in the Oxford English Dictionary has encouraged me to do specific research on this word.

There seem to be two paths in tracing the word bostin back to Middle English, the speech which emerged from Anglo Saxon after the Norman Conquest and which led to Modern Engllish. The first takes us to the important poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. This was written in the dialect of the north-west Midlands by someone who may have come from the borders of Cheshire and Staffordshire. Thus the author would have fallen within the general area of the west Mercian variation of Middle English. He was also responsible for the poems “Pearl”, “Cleanness (or Purity)” and “Patience” – all dating from the later 1300s.

“Sir Gawain” is an epic Arthurian poem and at its beginning a gigantic green stranger at King Arthur’s court challenges any man to strike him with an waxe “so long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow Barlay”. Here barlay means free and unchecked and it is not hard to see how the word came to be used by kids in the Black Country and Birmingham in their play and when they wanted a break, as in a game a of tig or whatever when a break is wanted and a child calls out “Barley!” or “Arley barley!”. The author also uses her instead of she as many of us still would in phrases like “Who does er think er is?” or “Er dunarf fancy erself er does!” Her in this sense is from the Anglo Saxon word heo meaning she.

With regard to bostin, the writer describes a hunt of a powerful boar, one line of which (1448) states that the men and hounds “hastened after this bor with bost and with noise”. Here bost means boasting or clamour, and elsewhere the poet uses boster for boaster.

Another important poet actually used the word bosten. He was William Langland, who wrote “The Vision of Piers Plowman”. This is, perhaps, the greatest Middle English work in our dialect. A radical and challenging piece, it looks to the marked reform of society and asserts the belief that, following the example of Piers the Plowman, everyone should contribute to society. It was written in the later 1300s by a man who was probably brought up either in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire or in the Clee Hills in Shropshire. In The Vision he makes three references to the Malvern Hills and its affinity with our speech is proclaimed by the way in which words like banke are written as bonke, the “a” becoming an “o”.

Langland’s work is noted as the most widely read of the Middle English alliterative poems – a form popular in the Midlands and the North. In it the poet wrote (line 2.081), “ To bakbite and to bosten and bere fals witnesse”; and also “Of dedes that he nevere dide demen and bosten” (line 13.305). In both cases, Langland uses bosten for boasting, and in another line (13.302) he writes “Boldest of beggeris, a bostere that noght hath” – using bostere for boaster.

Now in the Black Country and Birmingham we use bostin as an adjective, meaning something very good or even fantastic, such as in “we had a bostin time”; but we also use the word boster to mean something excellent, as in “it was a boster”. Given these senses it is not hard to draw a connection between bostin and boster and the Middle English words bosten and bostere.

The second possible derivation of bostin relates to another Middle English word bursten or bersting, which signifies having burst out or broken, and which led to barste, indicating smashed. Because in the West Mercian dialect an ‘a’ often become an ‘o’, barste could become borste. This has led to our verb to bost, meaning to break, as in “he bosted it”. Bostin may come, then, from bursting out in the sense of bursting out with pride, and some dialect dictionary experts have suggested such. My own view, however, would be to indicate that bostin and boster hail from the Middle English words for boasting and boaster – just as Ted Walker declared.