Inspired by Tate Liverpool’s Keywords: Art Society and Culture in 1980s Britain exhibition, academic, writer and native born ‘scouser’ Tony Crowley reflects on the origins of the word ‘Scouse’ and explores how language is much more than words

Peter Coker, 'Table and Chair' 1955
Peter Coker
Table and Chair 1955
Oil and mixed media on board
support: 1524 x 1219 mm

Purchased 1981© Tate

There are a number of terms in contemporary Britain that are used to refer in a sort of shorthand way to the culture (often the language) associated with a particular place – examples include ‘Geordie’, ‘Brummie’, ‘Cockney’, and of course ‘Scouse’. Yet the fact that such terms are familiar and commonly used within British popular culture, tends to obscure their long, often complex and little-known histories.

Take ‘Scouse’, for example, which is a shortened version of ‘lobscouse’, an early modern English nautical word for a basic dish consisting of meat, vegetables, and ship’s biscuit. The evidence indicates that ‘lobscouse’ was coined before the eighteenth century though its roots are obscure; it is in all probability a corruption of ‘lob’s course’, in the sense of a meal (‘course’) served to a ‘lob’ (a sixteenth-century coinage meaning ‘clumsy fellow, country bumpkin, clown or lout’). If this is the case, then it is likely that the name for this dish may have originated in England and spread through Baltic and Atlantic maritime trade (in which of course Liverpool played a central role in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). This hypothesis is supported by the use of a series of related terms for this type of stew across the northern European languages (modern Norwegian ‘lapskaus’, Swedish ‘lapskojs’, Danish ‘skipperlabskovs’, Dutch ‘lapskous’ and German ‘labskaus’), and the fact that ‘lobscouse’ was used in American English from the early-to-midnineteenth century. The transition from ‘lobscouse’ to ‘Scouse’ appears to have started in Liverpool by the last decades of the eighteenth century. A reference to the expenditure on food in the Liverpool poorhouse in the early 1790s, for example, includes the detail: ‘Beef, 101 lbs. for scouse’; ‘14 Measures potatoes for scouse’ (420 lbs); and ‘Onions for ditto’ (28 lbs).

Yet if this accounts for the origins of ‘Scouse’ the dish, the development of the more interesting transferred senses of the term is complicated and difficult to trace. ‘Scouseland’, meaning Liverpool, appears to date from the usage of seamen and dockers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But the crucial shift, which associates people, place and cultural (in this case culinary) tradition, appears to have taken place around the First World War in the slang of the British Armed Forces. In fact the evidence suggests that the use of ‘Scouse’, and the derivative ‘Scouser’, was a negative, or at least playfully disrespectful, way of referring to the inhabitants of Liverpool by people from elsewhere. This pejorative sense is confirmed by the first reports of the use of ‘Scouse’ within the city itself, which make clear that it referred primarily to denizens of the Scotland Road area (one of the poorest, and most Irish, districts). Indeed, while it remained as the name used in Army and Naval slang for Liverpudlian members of the Forces, ‘Scouse’ failed to displace ‘Dicky Sam’, the most widely used nickname for a Liverpudlian which dated from the early nineteenth century, until the 1920s-30s (at which point it began to contend with ‘wacker’ – the alternative form until the 1970s).

Atkinson Grimshaw, 'Liverpool Quay by Moonlight' 1887
Atkinson Grimshaw
Liverpool Quay by Moonlight 1887
Oil on canvas
support: 610 x 914 mm
Purchased 1967

Interestingly, the use of ‘Scouse’ to refer to the language of Liverpool (usually the accent, though it can also mean the local dialect) is relatively recent. In fact the first recorded usage is in a headline in the local newspaper, The Liverpool Echo: ‘Scouse lingo how it all began’ (1950). This is striking because although there is evidence of a sustained interest in the local language from the early twentieth century, the overt link between people, place and a form of speech only appeared and became consolidated through the activities of a small group of local historians, folklorists, entertainers and journalists in the 1950s. The difficulty, however, is that this ‘invention of tradition’, in which the creation of ‘Scouse’ was traced to a simple combination of the Lancashire dialect of the original inhabitants with the language of the Irish immigrants who came to Liverpool in the mid nineteenth century, is a mix of historical fact, myth, and pragmatic story-telling. But notwithstanding the inaccuracy of the story of its formation, ‘Scouse’ came to have an important part in the production of a powerful account of the history of the city, though one that considerably simplified Liverpool’s intricate multicultural past. What allowed ‘Scouse’ to play this role?

The answer is that the invention of ‘Scouse’ coincided with the advent of television and the development of particular modes of popular culture that it facilitated. From the early and important BBCTV documentary on Northern working class city life, Morning in the Streets (1958), to the earliest forms of TV drama, No Trams to Lime Street (1959) and Z-Cars (from 1962), through the impact of The Beatles, and, later, The Liver Birds, A Family at War, The Wackers, Boys from the Blackstuff, Bread, Merseybeat and, for twenty-one years, Brookside, ‘Scouse’ was presented as the language of Liverpool. This open and often ambivalent process meant that ‘Scouse’ has been and remains a flexible cultural and ideological marker. For example, it has been used at specific moments to represent the lovable, cheeky, witty rogue (‘the scousegit’ of Till Death Do Us Part, 1965); the malingering and socially damaging trade union militant (frequently figured in the broadcast news of the late 1970s); the whining, self-pitying victim (Hillsborough, 1989); the confident, assertive and irreverent maker of fashion and culture (the European Capital of Culture, 2008); the dignified and socially significant campaigner for decency and justice (Hillsborough, 2014).

Thus although it retains its former senses of a type of stew and a person from Liverpool, ‘Scouse’ is perhaps best understood as a good example of a mode of cultural representation that is peculiarly British: that curious, powerful and often damaging concatenation of language, class, geography, identity and politics.

Tony Crowley is a Professor in English at The University of Leeds and has written widely on language. He published ‘Scouse: A Social and Cultural History’ (Liverpool University Press) in 2012.

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Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain is on display at Tate Liverpool until 11 May