- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the very early morning
By far the most popular word on HH this week was the fairly uncompromising sparrowfarts, another word for the very early morning:
Some dictionaries claim that the word sparrowfarts—or, as it’s found elsewhere, the less flatulent singular form sparrowfart—is a term coined fairly recently in Australian slang. Others claim that it emerged as a joke amongst troops fighting in the First World War. Both theories are, it seems, completely wrong.
Sparrowfarts dates all the way back to the mid nineteenth century at least: the citation over on HH was from an 1886 dictionary of the Cheshire dialect, but the term was listed even earlier in an 1828 dictionary of The Dialect of Craven, a district of North Yorkshire, which defined it much more precisely as “three hours before daylight”. And we can presume the word was in use locally even earlier than that.
That 1828 dictionary also provided a tentative explanation of where such a bizarre term might come from: “This truly ludicrous expression,” wrote lexicographer William Carr, “is I think a corruption of sparkle-fert.”
Carr goes on to explain that sparkle-fart is a conjecture of his own invention based on the Anglo-Saxonisms speark, meaning “spark”, and fert, meaning (unsurprisingly) “fart”.
The problem with that theory is that (a) there’s no textual evidence to back it up, and (b) calling the very early morning “spark-fart”, and then presuming that spark could morph into sparrow, is arguably an even less plausible theory than the First World War music hall one.
Instead, it’s more likely that sparrowfarts began life just a jokey reference to the quietude of the early morning, and the gentle chirruping of the dawn chorus as the birds begin to wake up. In other words, at sparrowfarts o’clock it’s quiet enough to hear a sparrow fart.