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:
Love it! Have you heard of woodlice being called Billy Bakers and Chucky pigs or is it just a Stoke-sub-Hamdon thing?
— Jecca Szarmach (@jecca_szarmach) April 30, 2017
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:
My friend from Warrington called them Billy bakers!
— Lucy Mrs ‘Trims’! (@Talkloads) May 1, 2017
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……? 😉