Today is January 25th and this evening is Burns Night – commemorating the 257th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national bard and globally-loved ‘ploughman-poet’ Robert Burns. And as usual, I’ll mark the occasion by listing 25 words and expressions that I like from the medium in which Burns wrote his poetry, the Scots language. 25 words and expressions that, despite the onslaught of modern-day standardised TV-friendly, IT-friendly English, still appear in speech and writing north of the border.
Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for ‘cauld’, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’. Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967. I first encountered this term when a character used it in an Irvine Welsh novella I was reading, contained in Welsh’s 1994 collection The Acid House and called A Smart C**t. (Yes, Irvine is so hard-core that even his story titles have to be asterixed.)
Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.
Callant (n) – a lad or young man. The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival. Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.
Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch. Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.
Dunt (n / v) – a heavy but dull-sounding blow. The word appears in an old Scottish saying, “Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil,” which I guess is a version of “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”
Eejit (n) – idiot. Inevitably, in 2008, when Dundonian poet Matthew Fitt got around to translating Roald Dahl’s 1980 children’s book The Twits into Scots, he retitled it… The Eejits.
Flyte (v) – to trade insults in the form of verse. This combative literary tradition can be found in Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures, but flyting was made an art-form in 15th / 16th-century Scotland by poets like William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Sir David Lyndsay. There’s a poetic account of one flyting contest between Dunbar and Kennedy that’s called, unsurprisingly, The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie and consists of 28 stanzas of anti-Kennedy abuse penned by Dunbar and another 41 stanzas of Kennedy sticking it back to Dunbar. According to Wikipedia, this work contains “the earliest recorded use of the word ‘shit’ as a personal insult.” Thus, flyting was the Scottish Middle-Ages literary equivalent of two rappers dissing each other in their ‘rhymes’; and Dunbar and Kennedy were the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls of their day.
Gallus (adj) – a word that’s probably used by one or two Glaswegians when describing themselves, meaning bold, cheeky, reckless, show-offy and irrepressible. However, the online Collins Dictionary tells me that gallus is derived from the word ‘gallows’ and it originally meant ‘fit for the gallows’. Which is appropriate in a way. On a few occasions I’ve tried to have a quiet, reflective pint in a Glaswegian pub, only to have my space invaded and my meditation disrupted by a would-be gallus local wanting to entertain me with his amazing patter. With the result that I’d have liked to see that gallus Glaswegian strung up on a gallows.
Gloaming (n) – The period after sunset but before it gets completely dark. It inspired the famous 1911 song Roamin’ in the Gloamin’, written and performed by Sir Harry Lauder. The song’s chorus goes: “Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde / Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi ma lassie by ma side!” There’s also a song by Radiohead called The Gloaming, found on their 2003 album Hail to the Thief, which you’ll be surprised to hear is a wee bit less jaunty than the Harry Lauder song.
Guddle (n) – a confused mess (similar to a ‘muddle’). Guddle also exists in Scots as a verb and means to catch a fish with your bare hands, using the mysterious technique of tickling the fish’s belly.
Harled (adj) – a harled building has had its external stonework covered in a mixture of lime and gravel, giving it a roughcast coating that protects it against the worst of the Scottish elements. Famous harled buildings include Stirling Castle and Aberdeenshire’s Crathes Castle.
Hirple (v) – to hobble or limp.
Howk (v) – to dig, rake or poke around in. Once upon a time, the activity of manually picking potatoes out of the ground was called tattie–howking. A more abusive derivation is bin–howker, meaning someone who has to find sustenance by rummaging in other people’s bins.
Jakey (n) – a down-at-heels, worse-for-wear vagrant with an alcohol dependency – the alcohol in question usually being Buckfast Tonic Wine or Carlsberg Special Brew. The Scottish-based, English-born bestselling author J.K. Rowling is sometimes referred to as Jakey Rowling by Scottish-independence enthusiasts, irritated at her high-profile support for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.
(c) The Sun
Janny (n) – a janitor.
Kent yer faither! (idiom) – (I) knew your father! In other words, “Don’t give yourself airs and graces because I know you’re from humble stock, same as the rest of us.” I’ve never heard anyone use this as a putdown, but I’ve heard folk complain about the ‘kent-yer-faither syndrome’ in Scotland, i.e. Scotland’s a place where if you manage to improve yourself and be a success, you have deal with a bunch of jealous, moaning gits trying to cut you down to size.
Makar (n) – a poet or bard. In 2004, the Scottish Parliament established the post of ‘Scots Makar’, i.e. a national bard or poet laureate. The post has been occupied by the late Edwin Morgan and, since 2011, by Liz Lochhead.
Rammy (n) – a fight or brawl. A stairheid rammy is a brawl that breaks out among the womenfolk in the staircases and on the landings of Scotland’s urban tenement buildings. During the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, stairhead rammies took place in Scotland’s TV studios too. A television debate between then-SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was described afterwards by journalist Ruth Wishart as “a right good stairheid rammy” that “made strong men avert their eyes”.
Scooby (n), as in “I havenae a Scooby” – rhyming slang for ‘clue’, as in “I haven’t a clue.” Scooby refers to Scooby Doo, the famous American TV cartoon dog who accompanied some ‘meddling kids’, without whose investigations many, many, many criminals “would have gotten away with it.”
Shilpit (adj) – thin, pale and weak-looking.
Spurtle (n) – a long wooden utensil once used in Scottish cooking, sometimes a spatula for turning over oatcakes, sometimes a stick for stirring porridge. I can’t recall the name of the story it was in, but I vividly remember reading a description of a sheep’s carcass lying on a Scottish hillside with its four stiff legs “sticking up like spurtles”.
Thrawn (adj) – stubborn, obstinate and bloody-minded, inclined to do the opposite of what everyone urges you to do. However, there’s a macabre short story called Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which the word has a different meaning – ‘twisted’ or ‘deformed’. The title character is described as having “her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit…”
Trews (n) – tartan trousers, once worn by Scotland’s southern regiments and regarded as a traditional garment of the country’s Lowlands (although in reality, like kilts, trews originated in the Highlands). I’ve heard it said that trews were the prototype for the tartan plus-fours that golfers used to wear. Scotland’s ebullient, publicity-loving former First Minister Alex Salmond had a fondness for trews and was pictured wearing them on several occasions. Although looking at those pictures now, I think that even the world’s biggest Salmond-admirer would have to admit that Alex Salmond + trews = sight for sore eyes.
(c) The Daily Record
Vennel (n) – an alleyway or narrow lane. See also wynd and close.
Winch (v) – to be romantically involved with someone; though I’ve heard it used in more graphic situations where it clearly meant ‘get off with’ or ‘stick your tongue down the throat of’ someone. Winch is a verb that seems to add some effort to the act of getting romantically acquainted – it makes it sound like it requires heavy lifting. Yes, if you’re going to winch someone, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and shed some sweat.
(c) Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc