Considering Wales is England’s closest neighbour and first colony, and that the two countries have been intimately entwined for over a millennium, there are surprisingly few references to Wales in the English language. Current English dictionaries list just 11 apart from the words ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’: Welsh corgi, Welsh dresser, Welsh harp, Welshman’s button (an angling term), Welsh Mountain (a sheep), Welsh mountain pony, Welsh pig, Welsh poppy, Welsh rabbit (aka Welsh rarebit), Welsh springer spaniel and Welsh terrier.
There used to be a lot more; derogatory and insulting terms coined after the conquest of Wales, the better to dehumanise and belittle the foe. The very word ‘Welsh’ was used in England for centuries as an all-purpose adjective to signify anything poor, stupid or crooked and raise a cheap laugh. A ‘Welsh comb’ was your thumb and four fingers, a ‘Welsh mortgage’ was a pledge that would never be redeemed, a ‘Welsh mile’ was long and convoluted, a ‘Welsh cricket’ was a louse, a ‘Welsh diamond’ was rock crystal, and so on. But the fun went out of picking on Taffy, he was crushed anyway and new targets for scorn were emerging all over the world as the British Empire spread. The phrases dropped out of the dictionaries, leaving only ‘Welsh rabbit’ today as the last example of English mockery (rabbit was the poor-man’s meat in England and the Welsh couldn’t even afford that – starvation, how amusing!). Over time, as open sneering at the Welsh has fallen out of fashion, ‘rabbit’ has become corrupted to the meaningless ‘rarebit’, a word that occurs nowhere else in the English lexicon.
The verb ‘to welsh/welch’, meaning to fail to pay a debt, has also thankfully almost entirely fallen out of use due to its loathsome, out-and-out racism – but can still crop up in unexpected places. To his eternal shame, The Guardian‘s Chief Sports Writer Richard Williams used it in his column only this week when commenting on Wales’ lucky winning try against Ireland in last weekend’s rugby. His sickening attempt to conflate the routine ebb and flow of sporting fortunes with some presumed intrinsic characteristic in Welsh people should see him escorted from English liberalism’s spiritual home by security without having an opportunity to clear his desk of Olympic Games promotional knick-knacks. In response I am hereby coining a new verb myself to see how Williams likes it. ‘To brit’: to bully the weak in a failed attempt to elevate oneself at their expense.