Words We Use: Cess


Cess is an interesting little word, used in Scotland, Ireland, and many counties in England from the border to Sussex and Somerset. It means a rate, tax; generally a local tax. Wrote Scott in Midlothian: ‘All payment of cess or tribute to the existing government was unlawful.’ Capt. Grose recorded the word in Ireland in 1790. In Durham at the present time it is common to hear people speak of paying their rates and cesses. The word is found in the compounds cess-collector; cess-gatherer, a tax collector, and cess-payer, a rate-payer. McNulty in his story Misther O’Ryan, published in 1894, has: ‘There’d have bin a heavy claim agin the cess-payers of the barony, too.’ Scott in Waverly (1814) wrote: ‘Contrived to keep this blackmail a secret from him, and passed it in his account for cess-money.’

Cess also had the meaning, an allowance made to the poor, parish relief.

Cess in Yorkshire, meant energy, stress; also in schoolboy parlance, a good beating. ‘I’ll give it some cess’ means ‘I’ll work hard at it.’

Yet another meaning, found in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and in Wexford in olden times, is a disturbance, irritation, trouble in domestic life.

The verb cess means to rate, assess. ‘The house is cessed at ten pounds a year.’

A figurative meaning is to chastise. ‘I’ll cess you’ was recorded in Wexford and in Yorkshire.

Spenser in his State of Ireland (1596) wrote: ‘Cesse is none other but that which your selfe called imposition. One (cesse) is the cessing of souldiours upon the countrey. Another kind of cesse is the imposing of provision for the Governours house-keeping.’

A different cess means luck, success, generally used in bad cess, bad luck. Barrington’s Sketches of 1830 has ‘Bad cess the them, man and beast.’ ‘Och, bad cess to the could an’ the snow an’ the win’, wrote Jane Barlow in Bogland (1892). The Ballymena Observer of 1892 has, ‘Bad cess tae you, why didn’t you come in when you were going by the ither night?’

Bad cess is also used as a strong negative. Samuel Lover in Irish Legends (1848) has ‘Bad cess to the dhrop,’ which means ‘no drop at all.’

There is yet another cess which means a pile of unthreshed corn in a barn. Marshall recorded this in his influential Rural Economy in 1796. ‘There is four acres of wheat in that bit of a cess,’ was recorded in Somerset by the English Dialect Dictionary.