January 1st, 2021

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Child Catchers and Babby Hunters

Not long ago I discovered to my surprise that the dialect phrase, "More X than ever the parson preached about," meaning "a lot of X," was unknown to any of my Facebook friends. It was much used by my mother and grandmother, and I've been known to say it myself: it is after all the kind of phrase you can roll round your mouth like a gobstopper. Not that it was a family phrase in the sense of originating with us; one friend managed to track it down in a regional dialect dictionary. But it's died out, it seems, except in a few isolated instances - surviving at this point, perhaps, only in my head and that of my elder brother.

Anyway, noticing that a new version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was about to air, I wondered whether the idea of the Child Catcher might owe something to the dialect phrase used for truancy officers in early twentieth-century Shropshire: "babby hunter." My great-(great?)-uncle Joe was one such. An unsophisticated man, according to my mother, it was his delight to sit in his outside toilet watching the trains go past at the end of the garden, before wiping his bottom with torn-out pages of What Car. One of her favourite stories was of Uncle Joe coming across one of her schoolfriends, then in her late teens and very much from the right side of the tracks, and pointing his long bony finger at her with the words, "Ah've 'unted thee!"

I just looked up "babby hunter," but Google knows it not. Could this another linguistic isolate?