9

At some point in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mina - Jonathan Harker's fiancée/wife - encounters an old man, and strikes up a conversation. The old man is depicted as speaking a rustic dialect, with that speech reflected in the text. Towards the end of the conversation, we have this scene:

I thought he would be a good person to learn something interesting from, so I asked him if he would mind telling me something about whale-fishing in the old days. He was just settling himself to begin when the clock struck six, whereupon he laboured to get up, and said:
'I must gang ageeanwards home now, miss. My grand-daughter doesn't like to be kept waitin' when the tea is ready, for it takes me time to crammle aboon the grees, for there be a many of 'em; an', miss, I lack belly-timber sairly by the clock.'

Dracula (1897), by Bram Stoker. Chapter VI, Mina Murray's Journal. 1994 Puffin Classics (New York) edition.

I assume that "gang ageeanwards home" means something along the lines of "going towards home again". "Belly-timber" is likely "food", and "sairly" can reasonably be assumed to mean "sorely".

However, I'm flumoxed as to what "crammle aboon the grees" might mean. "Crammle" might be "scramble", and "aboon" might be "about", then what does "grees" mean? Where is this old man scrambling to? What does this have to do with teatime?

What does the phrase "crammle aboon the gees" mean?

1 Answer 1

11

The next sentence explicates the meaning:

He hobbled away, and I could see him hurrying, as well as he could, down the steps.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Chapter VI. Accessed at Project Gutenberg 15 June 2024.

The clock has just struck six, which reminds the old man that it is time for his tea. He does not like to keep his granddaughter waiting at teatime, so he scrambles down the stairs as quickly as he can to get home.

The word cramble is defined in the OED as follows:

2. Of persons or animals: To crawl, hobble, walk lamely, decrepitly, stiffly, or feebly.
‘Still used in north. Eng. dialects down to Cheshire and Lincolnshire.’ (N.E.D.)

“Cramble, V., Sense 2.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, July 2023. Accessed 16 June 2024.

The word gree, vanishingly rare in modern English, meant a stair or step in Middle English. The OED defines it as follows:

1.a A step in ascent or descent; one of a flight of steps; = degree, n. I.1

“Gree, N. (1), Sense 1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, December 2023. Accessed 16 June 2024.

The OED supplies, inter alia, a quotation from Palladius on Husbondrie:

Thre grees or iiij is up thereto to go.

Palladius, Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus. Palladius on Husbondrie. c. 1420. Translation of Opus Agriculturae, c. 400 CE. Ed. Barton Lodge. London: EETS, 1873. I.463, p. 18. Accessed at archive.org 16 June 2024.

The OED marks the word "obsolete, exc. Scottish," i.e., rare except in Scotland. Here is a definition from A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (up to 1700):

Gre, n.1 Also: gree, grie.
[ME. gree, gre (1303), OF. gré Cf Grece n.1 ]

  1. A step in ascent or descent; a stage in elevation, a shelf, tier, etc.

"Gre n.1". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 16 June 2024.

Mina is in Whitby at this point in the novel. Whitby is in Yorkshire, not Scotland, and the speaker has the typically Yorkshire name of Mr Swales. However, Yorkshire is in the north of England, and the commonalities between Mr Swales's dialect and Scots are evident elsewhere in his speech, so it's safe to say that gree does mean step or stair.

3
  • I thought aboon meant above, so I wonder why he uses it to refer to going down stairs? (Though he might have to climb some steps as well to get to his home!) Commented Jun 16 at 7:54
  • 3
    Good question, @KateBunting! Maybe it just means "upon the stairs" in this context?
    – verbose
    Commented Jun 16 at 7:58
  • 4
    Just to add that this interpretation makes sense because there are a lot of steps from the church (on top of the hill) going down to the town. The steps even have their own wikipedia entry: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitby_199_steps
    – Grundoon
    Commented Jun 16 at 14:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.