GinnelWatch: a new series celebrating the brilliance of the ginnel
noun; Northern English
a narrow passage between buildings; an alley
I love a good ginnel. I like the sound of the word, what it conjures up, and the myriad of totally brilliant ginnels in the North of England. But it’s hard to put a finger on why they’re so ace. I mean, what is it about a narrow aperture that is so appealing? Is it the promise of something wonderful at the end? The glimpse of another world? The sense that squeezing down a ginnel is a bit naughty? Whatever it is, I’m on board.
But it was only when I returned to the North after a lengthy residency in that there London that the inherent Northern-ness of the word ‘ginnel’ became apparent. When I ventured to express my love for ginnels on social media, I was met with online raised eyebrows from Southern pals. What on earth is a ginnel, they cried in unison. Then I became embroiled in a Facebook debate about the word itself. Within a couple of hours, I’d been introduced to all manner of alternatives. Here’s a selection.
Who would have thunk it? Depending on where you’re from, there are all sorts of words for what essentially amounts to an alleyway. But where does the word come from? A highly unscientific quick Google search suggest the word is French in origin: ‘chenel’ meaning ‘channel’, although as far as I can tell that etymology dates back to the 17th century. Oxford dictionaries (surely an authoritative source) say that “it is comforting to think that regional lexical variation in British English is alive and well”. Yes, yes and thrice yes. And so what if ginnel is a noun of uncertain origin? I’ll always love it.
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