I have to confess, this one is a new one on me.  I have Emma Tett, a reader of this blog (and published author), to thank for this one!

Despite having grown up in Somerset, I have never heard ‘Billy Baker’ as the name for woodlice.  I’ve heard ‘Pill-bug’, I’ve heard ‘Doodlebug’ (although that one is more commonly associated with a WW2 bomb), I’ve heard ‘Roly-Polys’ and I’ve heard Cheese-logs, but never ‘Billy-Baker’.  And I kind of love it!

In Devon, and apparently in part of what is now North Somerset, they are ‘Chuggy Pigs’.  ‘Billy-Baker’ seems to be a South Somerset term, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s crawled (pardon the pun) out to other areas.  This blogpost here, which I think is from someone living in Dorset, but it’s a little unclear, mentions how her neighbour Bill from across the road calls them ‘Billy-Bakers’.  Whether Bill is a native Dorsetman, or someone who has moved over from Somerset is a matter for some speculation of course.

This Tweet mentions it perhaps being exclusive to Stoke-sub-Hamdon:

However, from a reply to the same Twitter profile which went on to discuss woodlice, we then got this claim that the name is used in Warrington, in Cheshire:

So you have to wonder where the name came from.  Was @Talkloads’ friend originally from Warrington?  Were their parents originally from Somerset?  Had they spent a considerable amount of time in Somerset and picked it up there?

This all opens up a discussion about language contact, which is essentially what my PhD is about, but let’s not forget the important thing: who was Billy Baker, and what connection did he have to woodlice……?  😉

Any thoughts?

Image Credit: “Woodlouse” by Roo Reynolds is licensed under CC BY 2.0


5 thoughts on “Billy-Bakers

  1. Hi, I must admit never heard of them being called ‘billy bakers’, but I can remember that at home years ago we called them ‘billy buttons’, whether that was just us or whether anyone else called them that I don’t know.

  2. This is really interesting – something I stumbled on during my degree (actually, since arriving at university altogether) was how much lingo Somerset has that the rest of England doesn’t – Billy Bakers included.

    The only suggestion I could find was tenuous – Wikipedia suggests ‘Billy Bakers’ is extraordinarily specific to Yeovil and surrounding villages – and that it was because the resemble little loaves of bread. That doesn’t really help explain the ‘Billy’ part, but it’s as close as I could find! Some historical, very local reading material might shed some light but it’d be really time intensive.

  3. I live near yeovil and absolutely everyone here calls them BILLY BAKERS. I remember a friend visiting from London and I used the name Woodlouce for his benefit, and my son asks what a Woodlouse was; growing up in south Somerset, he had never heard the proper name, only knowing them as Billy Bakers!

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