The history of words can be dramatic, exciting, weird and wonderful (honest!). Never more so than the story of bitter rivalry, pride and military might that gave rise to the names of the Geordies and the Mackems.
The north-east corner of England is a wonderful place with a history of pride and industry.
If you think of the people and accents of this area, two words will probably come to mind. Geordies and Mackems, or the people of Newcastle and Sunderland, respectively. If you’re in the UK, you’ve probably heard and used these words. But what do they really mean, and where do they come from? That’s quite a story.
We Mak’em, they Tak’em – A Shipbuilding Rivalry
For many years, Newcastle and Sunderland were shipbuilding superpowers. Between them, the two north-east English ports would construct a large portion of the English navy that dominated the world’s seas in the 16th to 19th centuries.
As the two cities’ shipbuilding dominion escalated, so did their feud. Traditionally, both towns would build dozens of galleons, galleys and other ships. These were some of the most expensive pieces of equipment sold anywhere, generating much local wealth for the cities, with only the coal trade coming close in terms of scale. Shortly before the 1600s, this all changed when King Charles’s court began to award prized royal charters for navy vessels to Newcastle’s shipbuilders in preference to Sunderland’s again and again. A similar thing happened in the coal industry.
Poverty and pride
The cause was complex and political, but the effect was simple. One of the world’s leading shipbuilding cities lost its most wealthy and regular buyer. Naval galleons sold for many times as much as any other ship because of strict requirements and sheer size. Of course, the Sunderland shipbuilders couldn’t sell to any competing navy, so deals were struck to save the ship business and the town. Sunderland shipbuilders would make (mak in the local dialect) the hull and functional skeleton of the boats. Then the half-built hulks would be piloted up to Newcastle to be finished, fitted out and sold for many times the price the Sunderland shipbuilders got.
It goes without saying that building the hulls and hearts of ships was backbreaking labour. Much of the toughest, most dangerous work was undertaken in Sunderland. Despite this, the builders, merchants and workers of the town got a pittance compared to the fortunes of the artisans, fitters and monopolistic merchants of Newcastle. Resentment, as well as poverty and starvation came of this.
One complaint that has rung through the years has been ‘we mak’em and they tak’em’ or ‘We make them, and they take them’, referring to the way Sunderlanders strived to make the boats only for Newcastle to take them and make far more profit by reselling them. This objection was still around during the second world war, as was the tendency for ships to be constructed in Sunderland, by the Mackems, and fitted in Newcastle. The term mak’em, or Mackem was taken on and consistently used by Geordies to insult their rivals, but it has been owned by sons and daughters of Sunderland who are proud of their roots and hard-won industry.
‘We mak’em and they tak’em’ – Traditional Sunderland adage
What of the Geordies though?
It’s 1642 and the drums of war are pounding. As the English Civil War is declared, Newcastle, the beneficiary of decades of royal support in industry and trade, joins with the Royalists and King George I. Meanwhile, Sunderland sides with the Parliamentarian ‘Roundheads’ after a long history of oppression by the crown. The Mackem’s sense of republican rebellion against the crown and their combative opposition to the people of Newcastle began in earnest here.
The two sides soon faced each other at the Battle of Boldon Hill with a Scottish army supporting the Mackem Roundheads against the assembled Newcastle Royalists.
After a day’s hard fighting, the rebel army won and a mix of Scots and hugely satisfied Mackems occupied Newcastle for the rest of the war. The loyalists of Newcastle were apparently mocked and derogated for their support of George, with the word Geordie first being used there to mean someone stupid who was easily misled.
While the word became more prideful over the years, this negative sense of the term wasn’t a passing trend. Showman Billy Purvis was recorded using it in this way centuries later, telling a rival,
“Noo yor a fair doon feul, not an artificial feul like Billy Purvis! Thous a real Geordie!”
But much as the Mackems did, the Geordies owned their nickname and took it to heart. In a sense, each side in its dislike and mockery had given the other a moniker and a cultural identity they would eventually come to value deeply.
“Geordie goes beyond mere geography and is a quality of heart” – Jack Common.
So, if someone insults you for what you are, what you do, or what you believe in, own it, make it your own and be proud of it despite what they think. The meaning of the word can then be turned from a negative weapon to a positive foundation for strength and character.
Also, always take everything you read with a pinch of salt. There are also claims that the name Mackem, from mak’em and tak’em was actually invented by Mackems themselves to refer to the fact that they made the ships in the first place and then took them back again for repair when they were damaged “We mak’em and we tak’em”.
As for Geordie, this may have come from Newcastle’s other great old industry aside from shipbuilding. The Geordie was the nickname of a miner’s safety lamp George Stephenson invented near Newcastle, which the locals always preferred and took their name from. There are sources supporting both of these explanations, as well as the ones above, and no one can be sure which are true. Perhaps both! That’s just part of the joy of the winding wonderful story of words that is etymology.
This article was inspired by Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, an excellent illustrated comic-style book that is crazy in the best possible way. I’d strongly advise anyone with an interest in the North-east or beautiful illustration in general to read it.