AS the Big Meeting draws near, the big debate gets hotter: is it the Durham miners’ “gar-la” or the “gay-la”?

Last week we had suggestions that people in the north of the region said “gar-la” whereas people in the south said “gay-la”. We also had suggestions that some places are just plain confused: in Spennymoor, apparently, they talk of the town’s Jubilee Park “gay-la” but then they go off to the miners’ “gar-la”.

“I've lived in Durham and Bishop Auckland, and it “gar-la”, and that’s what my grandparents in Houghton le Spring called it - although it's still usually known as “the Big Meeting”,” says Paul Dobson.

And it is true that “gar-la” is the way most of our correspondents pronounce it. But is that historically correct?

Word reaches us from inside the Durham Miners’ Association that they say “gay-la”, and another correspondent directs us to that font of 21st Century knowledge, Wikipedia, which says that, according to the BBC, it is “gay-la” in Durham rather than the more common pronunciation of “gar-la”.

“Certainly that’s how I always heard it pronounced in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s,” says an anonymous correspondent, “and in those days, I think BBC newsreaders were told to use the “gay-la” pronunciation. I think perhaps it was post-Scargill that the other pronunciation came in more.”

The Northern Echo:

A 1960s gala

There could be something in that. “Gala” comes from an old French word, “galer”, which meant “to rejoice, make merry”. When you were dressed up in your best clothes ready for some rejoicing, you were said to be “en gala”, and a “gallant” person in the 16th Century was a well-dressed, high-spirited gala-goer.

When the word crossed into English use, the posh people who knew French, pronounced it “gar-la” to show they were clever enough to know its foreign-sounding origins.

So the theory is that when the working classes wrapped their tongues around it, with no knowledge of French, it came out “gay-la”, as in “why-ay mon, ah’m gannin t’gayla”.

The Northern Echo: Durham Big Meeting by Tom McGuinness, painted in 1968. Picture: Gemini Collection, Mining Art Gallery

Durham Big Meeting by Tom McGuinness, painted in 1968. It is one of the star exhibits in the colourful new exhibition of gala works of art in the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland

Nowadays, it seems that just like the Durham mines have died out, so that Durham miners’ gayla is fading away to be replaced by the garla.

This is, though, dangerous territory. We hear from inside the Kynren camp where in the original commentary, narrator Kevin Whately said “gay-la”. This provoked much “mumbling of discontent” among the nightshow volunteers and so now Kevin says “the Durham Big Meeting”. That way, no one is offended.