Words We Use: pad

Diarmaid Ó Muirithe


The word pad has many meanings in the dialects of Ireland and England. First of all it means a soft stuffed saddle, which are rarely, if ever, seen nowadays.

A long poem entitled Auld Handsel Monday, written in Edinburgh in 1792, contains the couplet, “An’ farmers’ wives, oe’r braw to gang, Gae ridin’ by on pads.” In Cumberland a pad was a kind of saddle for carrying two. It was made of canvas or carpeting, and used with or without stirrups.

The English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) quotes a Northumberland poem called Spraggon’s Auld Grey Mare, which has the lines: ‘Spraggon sets the pads upon my back sae early in the morn And rides me down to Felton without either hay nor corn.” In Somerset, a pad was made without a tree or other hard foundation, and was generally used for very young riders. Hence the Scots pad-saddle, described by the EDD as something between a pad and an ordinary saddle; a pillion.

A Yorkshire and Devonshire pad is a small pack or bundle. The EDD quotes a Devonshire writer: “We saw the hawker striding up the steep hill beyond Newbridge, with his pad at his back.” There is the Yorkshire phrase: “To turn a person his pad,” which means to turn him off; to dismiss him.

In East Anglia a pad, dried cowdung, was formerly collected for fuel. By all accounts a pad fire gave off a great heat; a great smell too, I should imagine.

Pad had another meaning in many English shires. It meant the foot of an animal, especially a fox’s foot. A book entitled Jeffrey’s Gamekeeper, published in 1878, tells us: “Country housekeepers still used the hare’s pad for several domestic purposes.”

Hence pad-mark, a footprint, the mark of a fox; also a fox-hunting term: the scent from a fox’s foot. A charming little book called A Cotswold Village, which I picked up in a Cheltenham book-shop after a Gold Cup visit, has: “That sticky state of soil which on ploughed lands invariably follows a frost, and in a lesser degree affects grass, causing a fox to take his pad scent on with him.” The EDD says that the word is Germanic in origin, and asks us to compare the Bremen dialect pad, the sole of the foot.

nÓ Muirithe’s new book, The Last Word: More Words We Use and Don’t Use, is in bookshops now