Out of the mouths of babes …


One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me in all of my life came when I was 5 years old, in the first class of the Infants’ School. A big girl – probably about 7 or 8 – told me that if I was playing in the school yard and someone came up to me and said, “SHIFT!” I should reply stoutly “SHOR!” and stand my ground.

I was fairly ignorant of the Black Country dialect spoken by most of my schoolmates, so I understood neither of these words, but I found that whenever an older child told me to shift, and I retorted “Shor!” it worked. I would smile cheerily, knowing I had used the magic password, the intimidator would look me up and down then either retreat disconsolately or invite me to play. Win-win!

Positive reinforcement worked so well that after a couple of weeks, I was no longer being told to shift or subjected to any other kind of aggression, and was friends with most of the other kids. It took me a long time to discover that “shift!” meant “move!” and “shor!” was Black Country language for “shan’t!” so that in my innocence, my unruffled defiance had been interpreted as assertiveness: “Don’t mess with me!” Whereas I thought I was just giving the correct response to a secret school code.

I don’t know who that big girl was, but her advice has served me well and I’m eternally grateful. First of all, it kept me intact in my earliest school life, where I retained my claim on the square metre or so of playground where I was bouncing my ball, skipping, standing on my head or digging in the mud, and also later in adult life where I was able to avoid being pushed and shoved around by colleagues and superiors. My response then was a more diplomatic form of “shor!” but it still worked.

I think the cheery smile probably also played its part in averting a violent reaction. Had I snorted my “SHOR!” with a frown or a glare it would probably have elicited a thump on the nose. Most of those ordering me to “Shift!” were bigger, older and stronger than me. But my honest body language seems to have defused the situation, and disconcerted my potential aggressors. Maybe now and then I did have to hit back – I don’t remember. The main lesson I learnt was that friendly resistance (and persistence) gets you further than belligerence.



13 thoughts on “Out of the mouths of babes …

  1. “…friendly resistance (and persistence) gets you further than belligerence.” Yeah, this probably does work well, except when confronted with a psychopath. 😊 But, you probably don’t run across many of those on a school playground, right?

  2. I am so glad that you were able to stand your ground, dear Cath. 🙂
    The only thing that I can remember from the days when I was that little and that used to annoy me immensely was, when some of my peers would tease me about the way I walked, for that was apparently showing how ‘proud’ I was!
    I so much did not want to be regarded as being ‘stolz’. That was the worst thing they could have called me! Maybe it was only this one time that I was called this. But it sticks out in my mind. I never got over it! It is amazing how these little incidents can have a significance for the rest of a child’s development.

    • Yes, these little things can go very deep. I remember being teased for my freckles, the set of my eyes (“you’ve got chinky eyes”) and the dimple that appears in my cheek when I laugh (“you’ve got a hole in your face!”) And later, when I got glasses, “Specky four-eyes”. I think in those instances, I retaliated with equally cruel retorts. BUT the barbs hurt and stuck.

    • The Black Country is an area in the West Midlands (England) that used to produce iron and coal. The coal seam is very close to the surface, and these were very dirty industries so the people and their clothes were also pretty well black too. “Black by day and red by night” (smog and furnaces) was the description. The dialect is almost incomprehensible to outsiders, still some Anglo-Saxon and Middle English syntax and lexis.

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