- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a dormouse
Dialect words are often a little on the unusual side, and figuring out their origins can prove tricky thanks to a dearth of written evidence. But this one is a particularly impenetrable one: according to the English Dialect Dictionary, a chestlecrumb is a dormouse.
As we mentioned over on Twitter, that’s word from the county of Devon in the southwest corner of England—but apart from that, none of the source dictionaries here at HH HQ have offered anything else to go on. Even the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary itself merely lists this term as it is, offering no attempt at an etymology or even citing a written record of it. And a cursory sweep of the internet brings up little more than references to the fact that this word comes from the Devonshire dialect of English—including our own tweet!
So can we work out what’s going on here? With no real independent textual evidence to go on, we can only really hypothesize. But here’s a theory at least.
There is a word, chessil, for a small pebble or, collectively, loose stones or gravel. It’s a word we’ve had since the Old English period, but it doesn’t survive much in English today outside of regional dialects and place names, and inside other longer words and terms.
So a chissel-bob is a woodlouse. Chesle-money is relic coinage, bent and misshapen after years in the earth. A chisselly area of land is one covered in loose grit. And there’s the famous Chesil Beach in Devon, of course.
Could the ‘chestle’ of chestlecrumb be a small stone then? In which case, could it be a comment on the dormouse’s small size? Is the ‘crumb’ of chestlecrumb meant to compound that tininess—so the dormouse is so small that it’s equivalent to a crumb splintered from any already minuscule pebble? Who knows. But in the absence of any other information or evidence, it’s a theory we’re happily putting out there.