Thursday, 11 February 2010

buttered peas

There’s an English folk dance tune called Buttered Peas. You can watch and listen to it here, played on the Northumbrian small pipes.
On Tuesday evening I took part in a folk music session in the depths of rural Walthamstow (London E17), and this was one of the tunes we played. (I was on the melodeon, and five other people were also playing melodeon; in addition we had several fiddlers, guitarists and so on.) One of the other musicians, a fiddler, commented that the name of the tune was actually a “corruption” of a Welsh name Pwt ar y Bys, which he claimed meant “fingering exercise”. He said the tune was originally a fingering exercise for harpists.
I had never heard this explanation of the name Buttered Peas before. The name does perhaps need some explaining, since we have no tunes called Buttered Parsnips, Buttered Cabbage, Buttered Potatoes or the like, nor for that matter Mushy Peas or Peas in White Sauce: so why Buttered Peas?
I didn’t say anything beyond expressing polite interest, because I felt I had better check. As I suspected, Welsh pwt pʊt means not “exercise” but “stump, something short”. Ar y bys ar ə biːs, ar ə bɨːs does indeed mean “on the finger” (though that’s finger in the singular: the plural is bysedd ˈbəseð).
It’s certainly true that the Welsh name for the tune is Pwt ar y Bys (here), and it means literally “something short on the finger”.

Here is someone playing it on the harp.

The folk music traditions of the various parts of the British Isles are hopelessly entangled together — in my experience, English folk musicians at least have lots of Welsh, Scottish and Irish stuff in their repertoire. You can see how folk etymology could easily turn pwt ar y bys ˈpʊtarəˈbiːs into a north-of-England buttered peas ˈbʊtə(r)dˈpiːz, ˈbʊtəb ˈpiːz.
I think that’s more likely than that Welsh folk etymology would turn buttered peas into pwt ar y bys.


  1. Yes the folk etymology sounds convincing. But surely that doesn't make Buttered Peas such a strange title. Adding fat to a vegetable dish makes sense to a 'folk' audience used to labouring on the land. The American equivalent is Greasy Greens.

    The 'folk' quality of the dish is clearer if you think of it as buttered pease as in the folk rhyme

    Pease porridge hot
    Pease porridge cold
    Pease porridge in the pot
    Nine days old

  2. An English folk etymology for pwt ar y bys would be more convincing if it were a more convincing title in Welsh. Can James D or someone come up with a more likely word than pwt?

    And Welsh folk music etymology might well turn buttered peas into pwt ar y bys, to stake a claim to it!

  3. I'd suggest that, given the interpretation given by the musician, it might be "pwts", which the GPC lists as a spoken variant of "pwcs":

    pwcs eg. ll. pycsiau. spell (of time), spell (of work &c., esp. one done energetically or in a rush), bout, 'push'; bout (of illness, coughing, &c.)
    Amr.: bwcs². Ar lafar.
    pwts². Ar lafar.
    Cfn: yn bwcs, yn bwts: suddenly, in a hurry, in a rush, all of a sudden. Ar lafar.

  4. Thanx James. Just like that! On the ball as usual.

  5. Any comments on the singular finger?

  6. Americans don't have "Buttered Peas" but during the War for Southern Succession, the Southern troops had a song titled "Eating Goober Peas". Here is a link to one version.

    for those of you interested: