The ochidore and Westward Ho!

A chance observation led down an interesting Devon-related path, when I read about the word "ochidore" featuring in the Scripps National Spelling Bee: see So C-L-O-S-E: West Fargo middle schooler finishes second at national spelling bee. The contestant who got it wrong can't be blamed, as it's highly obscure:

ochidore, n.
Perh. regional. Obs. rare.
A kind of crab, perh. the velvet swimming crab, Liocarcinus puber.

The definition comes, furthermore, from a single citation in literature: Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho!, in which it features as part of a prank played on a schoolmaster during a maritime pageant.

And clapping both hands to the back of his neck, the schoolmaster began dancing frantically about, while his boys broke out tittering, "O! the ochidore! look to the blue ochidore! Who've put ochidore to maister's poll!"

It was too true: neatly inserted, as he stooped forward, between his neck and his collar, was a large live shore-crab, holding on tight with both hands.

- see Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!, 1855.

It's evidently a Devon dialect word. In 1901, AL Mayhew enquired to Notes and Queries, apparently without response ...

"Ochidore."—This word occurs with the meaning "shore-crab" in Kingsley's ' Westward Ho !' chap. ii. p. 44. I can find no instance of its occurrence elsewhere. I should be glad if any of your readers would kindly tell me whether " ochidore " is a Devon word. Query etymology ? A. L. Mayhew. Oxford.

... and in 1935, an article on dialect words for marine life - Devonshire Fish Names - elaborated the definition:

Ochidore. Prob. Velvet Crab ... (EDD suggests the shore crab ...)
Velvet Crab (Portunus puber). Ochidore, Velvet Fiddler.

- pages 427/432, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 67-68, 1935

It's not clear why the "ochidore" should be identified as the Velvet Crab, which at most has blue-black claw tips. Blue crabs do exist - the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and the blue swimmer crab (Portunus pelagicus) - but neither of them are native to British waters. Perhaps the one in Westward Ho! was an escapee; they very rarely turn up after transport in ships' ballast (see the recent news item Rare Blue Swimmer Crab discovered in Cornwall). We'll probably never know more about the word, because the trail has gone very cold.

Westward Ho! has left us with another linguistic curiosity: the only British placename with an exclamation mark. It's generally known that the town is named after the novel 1., but not that it was constructed entirely in response to it. Kingsley eulogized the area in the novel, which he wrote while living at Bideford ...

All who have travelled through the delicious scenery of North Devon must needs know the little white town of Bideford, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with yellow sands, and many-arched old bridge where salmon wait for autumn floods, toward the pleasant upland on the west. Above the town the hills close in, cushioned with deep oak woods, through which juts here and there a crag of fern-fringed slate; below they lower, and open more and more in softly rounded knolls, and fertile squares of red and green, till they sink into the wide expanse of hazy flats, rich salt-marshes, and rolling sand-hills, where Torridge joins her sister Taw, and both together flow quietly toward the broad surges of the bar, and the everlasting thunder of the long Atlantic swell. Pleasantly the old town stands there, beneath its soft Italian sky, fanned day and night by the fresh ocean breeze, which forbids alike the keen winter frosts, and the fierce thunder heats of the midland ...

... and its bestseller status led to such interest in the area that a group of entrepreneurs saw a tourism market opportunity. Starting in 1863, the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company, chaired by Lord Portsmouth, established the first buildings (Westward Ho! was to be an exclusive health resort) and another group, the Northern Pier Company (Limited) built a pier. The developers in addition lobbied successfully for the right to build a railway (see the Bideford Chamber of Commerce site: page 1 / 2). According to The Rise of the Devon Seaside Resorts 1750-1900 by John F. Travis (see pages 139-140), despite much publicity, the resort was only a moderate success, suffering from public health problems in the 1870s.

Charles Kingsley, by all accounts, loathed the development, and wrote to the company:

How goes on the Northam Burrows scheme for spoiling that beautiful place with Hotels and Villas I suppose it must be, but you will frighten away all the sea-pies 2 and defile the Pebble Ridge with chicken bones and sandwich scraps.
It must have generally soured Kingsley's friendships in Bideford, as two of the prime movers of the project, Captain Molesworth and Dr WH Ackland, were his close friends. The controversy about Westward Ho! still continues, it seems, judging by the 2008 report in the North Devon Journal of debate over Kingsley's catch-phrase for Bideford, "the Little White Town".

For more background, visit the Westward Ho! Community History Project website, which as an excellent, if in places unedited, collection of material on Westward Ho! history (for instance, its origins in the 1855 Burrows Plan, the Pebbleridge, "potwalloping", the United Services College (attended by Kipling), and much else).

1. It's not alone in this: for instance, the city of Pippa Passes in Kentucky is named after the Robert Browning poem.
2. Oystercatchers.


No comments: