Swear like a sailor?: the surprising Welsh refashioning of ‘Navy Blue’

22 Mar 2021

Beadwork, minced oaths, and a syntactic interlude.

Time has proven to be extremely wibbly-wobbly recently. The ADHD brain is not good at temporal processing at the best of times; and this is emphatically not the best of times. There's something about this pandemic that has completely destroyed my sense of time passing (and I've seen even neurotypical people say the same). Nonetheless, I've been managing to get some work done on both my PhD research and the fabric-art project it inspired, ‘Bratwaith’. I completed the second piece in the Bratwaith series a few months ago, in fact, but the whole wibbly-wobbly timey-wimeyness of things got in the way of actually writing about it. So today, a little later than intended, I'd like to tell you about one of my favourite English-origin loanwords in Welsh, via another bit of fabric art.

A round embroidery hoop containing a piece of navy blue fabric. The fabric is almost entirely covered with small beads and mussel shells, in various shades of dark blue. The spaces without beads form the Welsh words 'nefi blw'.

‘Bratwaith II: Nefi Blw!’ was formed on a base of navy pinstripe cashmere cloth, hand-embroidered with beads made of glass, semi-precious gemstones, and plastic. Two mussel shells collected at Swansea Bay are also included, along with a small carved lapis-lazuli fish that's been in my collection of precious things for around twenty-five years before finding itself a home in ‘Nefi Blw!’.

As you may have guessed, ‘nefi blw’ is a Welsh rendering of the English term navy blue, so it was pretty obvious what the colour palette should be for this piece. Incorporating locally-collected shells and a fish motif ties this back to the water-themed ‘Bratwaith I’ (which also features the standalone loanword ‘blw’). I'm pleased with the juxtaposition of sombre, corporate navy pinstripe fabric with the playful, exuberant beading. I wanted this piece to be rather like a palimpsest: the beaded overlay almost obscures the underlying fabric, just as the Welsh respelling of ‘nefi blw’ almost obscures its underlying English form.

Although ‘nefi blw’ can be used just like the English term, to refer to a dark blue colour, that isn't what makes it one of my favourite loanwords. It has another use, as an exclamation of surprise or shock, equivalent to English oh my gosh or blimey (or perhaps my grandparents' favourite, hecky thump). Like these, ‘nefi blw’ is also a minced oath: an interjection containing an adapted form of a taboo word or phrase, to avoid offending othersEven mincing one's oaths didn't always cut the mustard in my grandmother's presence. My cousin once received a sound telling-off for exclaiming “sugar!” (a common substitute for the taboo word shit) after stubbing her toe, because “We all know what word you were thinking, young lady!” Thoughtcrime, Welsh Valleys style. I miss my Gramma.. This use of ‘nefi blw’ is not related to the proverbial bad language of naval personnel. Nor is it derived from any relationship to blue as a synonym for obscene or pornographic. Instead, it results from a phonological similarity to Welsh ‘nefoedd’ (heavens): English navy is pronounced as ['neːvi] in typical southern Welsh accents, making its first syllable very similar to that of ‘nefoedd’ (['neːvɔið]). A related lexical development is the paradoxical ‘nefi wen!’ (literally white navy) from ‘nefoedd wen’ (white [= “pure” or “good”] heavens).

Bear with me, if you will, for an interlude of mild linguistic geekery. Welsh typically places adjectives after the nouns they modify, whereas English places them before the nouns. So English navy blue should technically become ‘blw nefi’ in Welsh. When it's borrowed into Welsh as a colour term rather than an interjection, you'll see various ways of handling this discrepancy (examples are all taken from school uniform policies):

Siwmper wedi ei gweu nefi blw gyda gwddw V.

Navy-blue knitted V-neck jumper.

Sgert - Du neu Nefi glas.

Skirt - Black or Navy blue.

Siwmper / cardigan glas nefi.

A navy blue jumper / cardigan

Crysau gwynion a throwsus byr glas nefi blw.

White shirts and short navy-blue blue trousers.

The first example simply treats ‘nefi blw’ as a unit, with no attempt to make the individual words conform to Welsh syntax. The second keeps only the word navy, substituting the more commonly used Welsh ‘glas’ (blue) for the English borrowing ‘blw‘. However, the adjective-noun order of the English term is maintained, making a strange hybrid of Welsh vocabulary and English word order. The third example, in contrast, uses Welsh ‘glas’ but shifts the word order to ceate the standard Welsh ‘glas nefi’. The fourth example is my favourite. It treats ‘nefi blw’ as a unit, modifying the noun ‘glas’, resulting in the phrase “glas nefi blw” (literally navy-blue blue). Like the first example, this last one also treats ‘nefi blw‘ as a unit, but it goes a step further by seemingly ignoring the meaning of English blue embedded in the unit. Instead, it requires Welsh ‘glas’ to do the main work of indicating the colour, with the unit ‘nefi blw’ only supplying information about the shade.

After an admittedly very cursory poke around online, I haven't yet found examples of ‘blw nefi’, with the two English borrowings switched into Welsh word order. It seems that the individual words of the unit ‘nefi blw’ can't be deconstructed and then used with Welsh syntax; they're either a unit, or ‘nefi’ is kept as a borrowed adjective and ‘blw’ discarded. You'll occasionally see ‘glas y llynges’ (literally the blue of the Navy or the Navy's blue) offered as a formal translation for navy blue. It's clunky, and it doesn't surprise me that even those who discard ‘blw’, for which there is an obvious and common Welsh substitute, often keep ‘nefi’ as a neater option.

It's interesting that Welsh developed a minced oath for ‘nefoedd’. I don't know of any commonly-used minced oaths based on heavens in English; it doesn't seem to be a particularly taboo word, so perhaps never really warranted a euphemistic replacement. Given that ‘nefoedd’ is itself fairly commonly used as an interjection in Welsh, I wonder whether the adoption of ‘nefi blw’ (and ‘nefi wen’) was more about enjoying the play on words than it was a desire to euphemize the mild oath ‘nefoedd’?

In any case, I hope you'll be amused by the thought of yelling “navy blue!” next time you stab your thumb with an embroidery needle or drop the shampoo bottle on your foot in the showerThese oddly specific examples are, in no way, things that I do all the time because I'm a) a clumsy oaf, b) whose fingers have forgotten how to have nerve endings ever since I had The Plague. How dare you suggest such a thing?.