Monday 2 January 2012

A Year and a Day

All right. I didn't get round to posting anything yesterday for various intensely technical reasons involving gin and smiles. So today's post will have to be on the old rule of a year and a day.

A year and a day used to be terribly important in murder cases. If you stab me and I die five minutes later that's definitely murder. However, what if you stab me and I die a month later? Or six months? Or fifty years? At what point does it merely become a long term injury that may aggravate, but cannot be said to have caused, my final coil-shuffling?

Until 1996, there was a nice simple rule: a year and a day. If your victim dies before then, it's murder: after that it's just bad manners.

Anyway, this takes me back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the opening scene of which occurs:

While New Year was so yep [young] that it was new comen,
That day double on the dais was the douth [food] served...

When in walks a huge green knight who challenges the assembled knights to a game. Any one who is brave enough can come and strike him once with a sword on condition that, in a year and a day (presumably January 2nd), the green knight can do the same to his assailant. Here's the relevant stanza (spelling slightly modernised):

"Nay, frayst I no fight, in faith I thee tell;
It are about on this bench but beardless childer;
If I were hasped in arms on a high steed,
Here no man me to match, for mights so weak.
Forthy I crave in this court a Chistmas gomen [game],
For it is Yule and New Year, and here are yep [youngsters] many.
If any so hardy in this house holds himselven,
Be so bold in his blood, brayn [mad] in his head,
That dare stiffly strike a stroke for an other,
I shall give him of my gift this giserne [battle-axe] rich,
This axe, that is heavy enough, to handle as him likes,
And I shall bide the first bur [blow], as bare as I sit.
If any freke be so fell to fond [test] that I tell,
Leap lightly me to, and lach [grab] this weapon;
I quit-claim it for ever, keep it as his own.
And I shall stand him a stroke, stiff on this flet [floor],
Else thou will dight me the doom to deal him another, barlay.
And yet give him respite
A twelvemonth and a day;
Now hie, and let see tite [quickly]
Dare any herein ought say."

Gawain takes up the challenge, and, without wishing to give too much away, has a bad January 2nd. An oddity of all this is that the father of a friend of mine still used to say "barlay" in the playground in Cheshire in the 1950s.

Bloody January again


  1. I can recall saying "Barlay" in the 70's in the Bolton area. We also used the word "Demic" to describe something as faulty or damaged.

  2. Katherine W (from Manchester)2 January 2012 at 17:50

    "So they sailed away for a year and a day, to the land where the bong tree grows..."

    From: The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

  3. In "A Place Called Freedom", Ken Follett gives a different legal explanation from the 18th century. It is about labourers becoming indentured after working for a year and a day.

  4. I remember barlay being used in children's games in the early '60s here in Melbourne. But we thought it was 'Barley', not being educated in the classics at that stage.

  5. I loved the 'gin and smiles' excuse!

  6. Barlay was used in Cardigan West Wales when I was a child in the late 70s and Early 80s. Thirty years later I now know why, all I need to know now is why we called the game it was used in was known as kip/cip.

  7. The Antipodean, who is sad to report that children now seem to say 'pause' instead,6 January 2012 at 06:37

    From the Australian National Dictionary Centre website:

    "This is a term used in children’s games, when a person wishes to claim a temporary truce. It first appears in English in the fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knightand appears to be related to French ‘parlez’. Iona and Peter Opie in The Lore and Language of Children(1959) report that in Britain it is one of a number of regionally distributed terms for a truce. Barley is unknown in eastern and most of southern England, where the terms are fainites, kings, crosses, cree, and scribs. Barley is the term in Scotland and the west of England. Bars in used in Devon. In Swansea the term is bar. In Aberdeen and a few towns in England the term is barleys. We know that these four forms are used in Australia, and suspect that they are distributed regionally. Victorians say barley, but people in New South Wales say bar or bars. There is some evidence for barlies in Western Australia."

    We pronounced it more like bah-LEEZE, but a friend's mother apparently said barleys, with the s-sound.

  8. I remember using 'barlay', 'bars' and 'pax' at various Australian schools, in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, in the 1970s. Barlay and bars declared a short truce, pax declared surrender.

    I didn't hear it for many years after that, but my sons use barlay in the same sense today. They're at primary school in Aberdeenshire, which ties in nicely with the Antipodean's comment quoting the Australian National Dictionary.

  9. My kids used to say "Barley" in the school playground, in Lancashire, 10-15 years ago. No reason to suspect it has died out since.