Back when I was a young Anorak there was a short cut from our street to the centre of my village. It was a paved gap between two sets of houses and we always referred to it as “the snicket”. I grew up in North Yorkshire, close to the east coast, but the word was my mother’s, and she came from West Yorkshire; altogether closer to the spine of England. According to my recent research, snicket is actually a north western word, originating from the Lake District.
My part of the world is apparently more likely to call such an alleyway a ginnel*, although it’s not a word I heard until I moved to South Yorkshire. A friend who now lives in Sheffield (South Yorkshire) but is originally from Derbyshire, calls them jennels, which is clearly from the same source.
* Pronounced like give, not like gin.
In East Yorkshire, and more specifically the city of Kingston upon Hull, they’re called ten-foots. I have no idea why, and neither does anyone else I’ve asked. It could be something to do with the width – but I’ve never measured one! Oh, and it is ten-foots, not ten-feet.
I currently live in the East Midlands where, I’m reliably informed by the OED, that the term for a passage between houses is a twitchel. Its earliest recorded use was from the 15th century in Nottingham, and it’s believed to be a variant of the Old English word twichen, which was used in Anglo Saxon charters for a place where two roads met.
Back up north in Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne they call them chares, and evidence comes from a 13th century map of Gateshead that included the street Potter’s Chare. However, if you head south to Oxfordshire you’ll find the obviously related words tchure, chure and chewer. They’re all probably corruptions of the Old English cierr, meaning turning.
And that brings us to Scotland, where they spoke a completely different language for many years and still sound as if they do in some parts of the country. Way up there alleyways are called wynds – pronounced like whined – and the origin might be similar to that of the word wind (as in to twist). Incidentally, narrow boat people talk about ‘winding’ when they turn a boat around. It’s pronounced like the North Wind (doth blow, and we shall have snow, etc) and it takes a bit of getting used to when you first hear it regularly. But that’s yet another glory of the English language!