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Tagarene

You’re unlikely to know this word — variously spelled — unless you come from north-east England, especially the Newcastle area. But it does occasionally pop up in prose that gains a wider audience:

“Now help me tidy up, this place looks like a bloody tagarene shop.” Another one of her expressions. I had no idea what a “tagarene shop” was, although it clearly described the disorder and chaos that always threatened to overwhelm the house if we didn’t clear up after my mischievous younger brother.

Broken Music: A Memoir, by Sting, 2003. This appearance isn’t surprising, since Sting was born in Wallsend (called that because it’s at one end of Hadrian’s Wall).

A tagarene shop was a kind of junk shop, sometime specialising in old clothes but often carrying a much wider range of miscellaneous oddments, particularly marine scrap. The tagarene man who ran it did much of his trade with ships:

A “tagareen man” has a floating shop which he rows about the tiers of ships, announcing his presence by a bell. His dealings are carried on by barter or cash, as may be convenient; and old rope, scrap-iron, or other similar unconsidered trifles, are exchanged for the crockery or hardware with which the boat is stocked.

Northumberland Words, by R O Heslop, 1894.

Such collections of bric-a-brac, oddments and general detritus were likely to have made a tagarene shop an excessively untidy place and it’s easy to see how the phrase came to refer to a muddle.

Nobody knows its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary tentatively suggests it’s based on tag. Local people remember tagger in the sense of marine scrap, though the evidence doesn’t show whether it’s the origin of tagarene or a shortening of it. The closely similar tagrijn appears in Dutch, an old-fashioned term for someone who buys and sells disused ship materials, which some Dutch etymological writers have suggested may be from Aramaic, implying that it’s the source of the English term. However, J de Vries's Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek of 1971 points out that it was late entering Dutch and probably derives from the northern English term rather than being its source. Another suggestion is that it’s Arab in origin. Some Moors in north Africa have that name; it’s been proposed that it was adopted by them after they had been expelled from Spain around the end of the fifteenth century. (A link to Tangerine, a person from Tangiers, which gave its name to the orange exported from that city, is improbable.) It’s unlikely to be true, but the suggestion isn’t as daft as it sounds, because the Newcastle area has long had an Arab community.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Aug. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 August 2011.