This evening is Burns Night, marking the 255th anniversary of the birth of Alloway ploughman-poet Robert Burns. During the past few days, no doubt, children in schools the length and breadth of Scotland have stood in front of their classmates and teachers reciting Burns’ poems. Those poems, of course, were written in Scots; so this must be the only time in the year when kids can come out with certain Scots-language words in the classroom without their teachers correcting them: “Actually, that’s not what we say in proper English…”
However, it’s not teachers’ disapproval that looks likely to do for the Scots language – and it has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic websites like Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/). It’s more probable that the death-blow will be delivered by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of London-based soap operas where manically-depressed, faux-Cockney, shaven-headed petty criminals shout at their family members and tell them to ‘shaddup’.
Maybe a decade or two from now, everyone north of the border will be talking, if not in Eastenders-style Mockney, then in a bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’. That’s the glottal-stop-ridden vernacular that is sometimes adopted by wealthy politicians during public speeches – Tony Blair, for example, when he was attempting to sound what Nu-Labour strategists thought was ‘street’; or George Osborne, when he wants to show that despite his inherited millions he can speak oik, just like 99.9 percent of the British electorate do.
Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots. Here are 25 of my favourite Scots words, which I would be very sad to see slip into linguistic extinction. Most of the definitions given come from my heavily-used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.
Bairn (n) – a baby or young child. Actually, the other night, I was watching an episode of Star Trek – the original series – and I heard Scottie lament, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!” So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least. Also, ‘the Bairns’ is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon. As you head towards Glasgow, though, I think more folk refer to their young offspring as ‘weans’.
Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person. In the 1970s, this word became the height of cool among me and my mates when we saw Big Banana Feet, the documentary about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, and we heard Connolly respond to a heckler with the gruff putdown, “F**king bampot.”
Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit. One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance. For example: “Hae ye seen the new Richard Curtis film?” “Aye. It wis a load o’ boak.” In his sort-of-stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.
Bowffin (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly. Once upon a time, ‘mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’. Now, however, ‘mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead. (“See that Miley Cyrus? She’s a right minger.”) Thus, it has fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective ‘bowffin’ to describe the odour of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, old socks, certain species of orchids, on-heat male goats, hippies, etc.
Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable, as in “Thon Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight is a carnaptious auld bugger.” This is another Scots word that somehow feels like it’s onomatopoeic even though it isn’t.
Corbie (n) – a crow or raven. The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.
Cowpit (adj) – overturned, fallen-over. Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines. Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coach-load of his mates. As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a ‘cowpit ewe’ in one of the fields. Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did. The young farmer got out and put the cowpit ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed. That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.
Dreich (adj) – dreary or tedious, especially in regard to wet, dismal weather. A Presbyterian-sounding adjective that, needless to say, is heavily used in Scotland.
Haver (v) – to talk nonsense. This is word is essential for understanding the end of the first verse of the Proclaimers’ song 500 Miles, which goes: “And if I haver, yeah, I know I’m gonnae be, I’m gonnae be the man who’s havering to you.”
Haud yer wheesht! (exclamation) – be quiet! Incidentally, Haud Yer Wheesht was also the name of a rather good folk band that operated in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, headed by Jimmy the Bagpiper who used to busk around St Giles’ Cathedral. (If you were familiar with Edinburgh at the time, he was the one who dressed up like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.)
Hochmagandy (n) – a jocular or poetic word for sexual intercourse, for recreation, not procreation, between people who are not married to each other. Unsurprisingly, Robert Burns was familiar with this saucy noun, as indicated by the final lines of his poem The Holy Fair:
‘There’s some are fou o’ love divine,
There’s some are fou o’ brandy,
An’ mony jobs that day begin,
May end in hochmagandy…’
Hoolet (n) – an owl. This charming Scots word, like a number of others, is derived from the French language, where the word is ‘hulotte’. (A historical example of Scots-borrowing-from-French is ‘gardyloo!’ This was the cry given by people in the densely built-up tenements of 18th century Edinburgh when they emptied their buckets out of their windows. This supposedly comes from the French, ‘Gardez l’eau!’ which means, ‘Watch out, water!’ Though in the Edinburgh context a more accurate meaning might have been, ‘Watch oot or ye’ll get pish an’ shite dumped aw ower yer heid!’)
Jobbie (n) – a turd. A word much loved by Billy Connolly, as in his routine about the mechanism that expels faecal matter from underneath airplane toilets, the ‘jobbie-wheecher’. (‘Wheech’ – to remove something quickly and suddenly.)
(c) Daily Telegraph
Jouk (v) – to duck or dodge. A nice story I’ve heard is that this word found its way to the American south. There, a ‘juke joint’ became a roughhouse dancing venue where people had to keep jouking this way and that to avoid punches, bottles, etc., thrown on the dance floor. In turn, this led to the machines that played records of the music you heard at such places being called jukeboxes.
Keek (v) – to peep or glance at something. The derivative ‘keeker’ refers not, as you might expect, to a peeping Tom, but to a black eye.
Lum (n) – a chimney. A while back, the Guardian reviewed a collection of short stories by Alasdair Gray and the reviewer complained about the number of typos in the book. He cited as an example ‘Edinburgh lums’, which he assumed was a misprint of ‘Edinburgh slums’. But no, Gray was actually referring to the smoky chimneys of the Scottish capital.
Midden (n) – a dunghill. A word often employed by Scottish parents while they complain about the condition of their teenage kids’ bedrooms. Also, at one point, the celebrated British sci-fi comic 2000 AD featured a character who was a futuristic Scottish bounty hunter with a gruesomely mutated visage: his name was Middenface McNulty.
Neb (n) – a nose, beak or projecting point. Once upon a time, ladies of a certain age had to put up with uncomplimentary remarks about ‘nebs’ whenever they stuck their Barry Manilow records on the household stereo.
Nippie sweetie (n) – an irritable sharp-tongued person. This is usually applied to the female of the species, and currently Scotland’s leading example of a nippie sweetie is the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Actually, in a recent televised debate between Sturgeon and Alastair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Carmichael discovered that she wasn’t particularly sweet and she delivered considerably more than a nip.
Numpty (n) – a stupid person. To me, though, a numpty is more than that – it’s a preposterous, pompous person who is also stupid. In In the Loop, the movie spin-off from the satirical TV show The Thick of It, the preposterous, pompous politician played by Tom Hollander becomes a laughing stock when the wall of his constituency office collapses. Jamie MacDonald, the ferocious Motherwell-born spin doctor played by Paul Higgins, taunts him about ‘Wallgate’ by calling him ‘Humpty Numpty’.
Pisht (adj) – drunk. Just as the Eskimos are said to have a hundred words for snow, there must be at least a hundred words in Scots for being inebriated. (See also ‘arsed’, ‘bevied’, ‘bleezin’, ‘blootered’, ‘buckled’, ‘fou’, ‘gubbered’, ‘hingin’, ‘minced’, ‘mingin’, ‘miraculous’, ‘miracked’, ‘mortal’, ‘reekin’, ‘reelin’, ‘steamboats’, ‘steamin’, ‘stocious’, ‘wellied’, etc.) Which I suppose is a tragic reflection on the state of the Scottish psyche. Now excuse me while I pour myself another dram.
Scunnered (adj) – sickened or disgusted. During the 1980s and 1990s, this word was commonly used in Scotland on the mornings following general elections, when it became clear that a majority of people in Scotland had voted for the Labour Party and a majority of people in the south of England had voted for the Conservatives. Guess who ended up ruling Scotland each time?
Smirr (n) – a drizzly rain falling in small drops. A sad, ghostly word that perfectly describes the sad, ghostly semi-rain that seems to envelop the Scottish landscape… well, 365 days of the year.
Stramash (n) – a disorderly commotion or argument. A word popularised by the Scottish TV commentator Arthur Montford, he of the extravagantly checked jackets, who would rarely let a football match go by without referring to some sort of ‘stramash’ breaking out in the penalty box.
Widdershins (adv) – anti-clockwise. I like this word because of its spooky connotations. In olden times, to perform something ‘widdershins’ was to do it in the opposite way from how it was naturally done, which was to invite bad luck. This gave the word occult overtones too.
Very soon I will print a list of 25 more Scots words that must not die.