Words We Use: False

If you were ‘fause’, you were not necessarily deceitful - it also meant shrewd and clever

The word false, as everybody knows, means deceitful, treacherous; cunning, sly; insincere, wheedling. It is sometimes written fause, as Mrs Gaskell did in Sylvia back in 1863: 'Now, be deep and fause, mind thee!' From Devon, the English Dialect Dictionary quoted a report which proclaimed: 'That pony is mortal false; she slipped out of the stable before I could lay hands on her.'

Used in a good sense the word means sharp, shrewd, clever, precocious, and is generally applied to children and animals. From Lincolnshire the dictionary has: 'Yon little tarrier o' yours is as wick as a flea an' as fause as a fox; ther' isn't no getting' shut on him when he thinks he wants to go with ye.' Prior, in his story Rennie (1895) wrote: 'If ye don't leave my gell be, George Sharp, as thinks yerself so fause, I'll come and larn yer.'

‘As false as a Christian’ is said of an intelligent animal in many places in England. ‘As false as a bag of monkeys’ may be heard in Cheshire. Hence falseness, cleverness. False also means proud, vain, boastful. ‘You think yer fine and fause now that you’ve getten a grandson,’ was reported to the EDD from Yorkshire.

Of a horse, false means wanting in spirit, vicious, or as a contributor to the EDD put it, ‘a horse that sweats at the sight of a collar.’ Of a man it means lazy:’Who’d give that false git a job? He wouldn’t work in a fit!’ was recorded in Co Wexford.


The verb false means to cajole, flatter. ‘I need a new ball gown. I must false my mother.’ That’s from Shakespeare’s Warwickshire. Hence falsing, coaxing, wheedling. In Shropshire to false means to deceive.

I came across the verb fammel recently in a book I was reading about the English of Shakespeare's birthplace. The word had also travelled to the Barony of Bargy in Co Wexford: I heard Jack Devereux, a fisherman from Kilmore Quay use it back in the 1970s. It means to starve, famish. An interesting book by a man named Porson who hailed from Worcestershire, Quaint Words, published in 1875, has 'A stranger would have thought he'd been fammell's to death.' 'I'm half fammelled,' was recorded in Oxfordshire. The word is from the Norman dialect fameiller, from Old French fameiller, from unattested Romanic famecilare, for famelicare, derivative of Latin famelicus, hungry, starved. This may explain how the word came to be used in the Anglo-Norman barony of Bargy.