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Issue 67 - There's a word for it

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


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There's a word for it

Adam Jacot de Boinod unearths some excellent Scottish words

Some 10 years ago now I worked on the first series of the BBC programme QI, hosted by the supreme wordsmith Stephen Fry, in which it was my job to discover anything ‘quite interesting’ beginning with the letter A. I thought what a wonderful treasure trove exists in the world’s dictionaries and so I begun to read as many as I could get my hands on. The Scottish dictionaries did not disappoint with dialect words from across the breadth of the land:

gedge (1733) to talk idly with a stupid gravity
raw-gabbit (1911) speaking confidentially on a subject of which one is ignorant
ramstamphish(1821) rough, blunt, unceremonious; forward and noisy
quisquous (1720) hard to handle, ticklish
pursy short-breathed and fat
philabeg(1839) the leather pouch worn in front of the Highlander’s kilt as a pocket
yule-hole (1911) the last hole to which a man could stretch his belt at a Christmas feast
umbersorrow hardy, resisting disease or the effects of severe weather
feelimageeries (1894) knick-knacks

The lexicographers of the mid Victorian era went to extraordinary lengths to record the dialects of each of the individual counties:
wamflet (Aberdeenshire) the water of a mill stream, after passing the mill
squeem(Ayrshire) the motion of a fish as observed by its effect on the surface of the water, including the idea of the shadow made by the fish
youfat (Ayrshire 1821) diminutive, puny
pouff (Banffshire) the act of walking with a heavy step, especially through weariness
hoolie-gool-oo-oo (Banffshire 1876) the cry, hooting of an owl
shick(Caithness) to set the head as a bull does when intending to toss
gardyloo! (Edinburgh: from Walter Scott’s book Midlothian 1818) a warning cry given before tossing slops and garbage from the windows of old Edinburgh (from the French gare (de) l'eau: beware of the water)
choowow(Fife) to grumble, a grudge
cod-heads (Glasgow 1930s) shoes that have worn out at the toe
bumbeleery-bizz (Lanarkshire) a cry used by children when they see cows startling, in order to excite them to run about with greater violence
poot, poot, poot (Orkney Isles) a call to young pigs at feeding time
eske(Orkney Isles) small spots of rain that precede a heavy storm
sluppra (Shetland Isles) half-melted snow
noraleg (Shetland Isles 1899) a needle with a broken eye

The Scots may not have as many words for snow as the Inuits, but they have a fine vocabulary for their generally cool and damp climate.
Dreich is the word for a miserably wet day. Gentle rain or smirr might be falling, either in a dribble (drizzle) or a dreep (steady but light rainfall). Plowtery (showery) weather may shift to a gandiegow (squall), a pish-oot (complete downpour), or a thunder-plump (sudden rainstorm accompanied by thunder and lightning). Any of these are likely to make the average walker feel dowie (downhearted) as they push on through the slaister (liquid bog) and glaur (mire), even if they’re not yet drookit (soaked to the skin). The track in front of them will probably be covered with dubs (puddles), as the neighbouring burn (stream) grows into a fast-flowing linn(torrent).

The very next day the weather may be different again, and the walker beset by
blenter (gusty wind). Or if it’s grulie (unsettled), there’s always the hope that it might turn out leesome (fair) with a lovely pirl (soft breeze). And then, after the next plype (sudden heavy shower), there may even be a watergow (faint rainbow). In deepest winter it will generally be snell (piercingly cold), and sometimes fair jeelit (icily so) among the wreaths (drifts) of snow. For a precious few fair days in summer, there may even be a simmer cowt (heat haze), though the more austere will be relieved that the likelihood of discomfort remains high on account of the fierce-biting mudges (midges).

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books and the iPhone App Quiz Game Tingo involving Interesting Words.

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