Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Greenin' o' the language

You never quite know what is going to be said to you in Scotland. The other evening I conversationally asked a friend how he was doing. He didn't say ''Fine ,'' as you'd expect, or even ''We twa hae rin about the braes/And pu'd the gowans fine.'' No. He came up with something completely unexpected.

''Well,'' he said, with a smile, ''I'm swithering.''

About these ads

''You're - ''

'' - swithering,'' he repeated.

''Ah,'' I said.

It's one of the minor pleasures, this, of living north of the border: although the natives speak a basic English (well, most of them), they pepper it with sudden Scottishisms. It keeps the intruding alien on his toes. Since I moved to Glasgow, anyway, I have often felt a little like Professor Higgins, skulking in the shadows of Covent Garden, noting peculiar sounds and idioms, collecting new words. ''Swithering,'' it emerges, means ''hesitating'': a cross, perhaps, between dithering and swerving.

Some Scottishisms nowadays are said in self-conscious quotation marks. But there are still a fair number in common usage, employed without any sense of oddity.

One I like is the word ''messages.'' My wife ''goes for the messages'' without a thought. And she returns home with them in baskets and bags and large cardboard boxes. But it turns out that she is not weighed down by a vast conglomeration of telegrams and airmail letters. She has just stocked up with groceries.

Faced with such linguistic enigmas, I have finally bought myself a splendid book, Chambers Scots Dictionary. With good reason it boasts that it ''has no rival,'' providing a record of Scottish words ''in use since about 1650.'' And it describes itself as a ''glossary for Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns, Scott, Galt, minor poets, kailyard novelists and many others.'' But in spite of all this, not a murmur does it contain of ''messages.''

About these ads

And it isn't much help with ''stick bubbly,'' either. This vivid phrase is listed under neither ''stick'' nor ''bubbly.'' I have had to arrive at my own definition. It is a form of dismissive rejoinder to someone who refuses to play your game, run your race, scratch your back. ''Och,'' you exclaim, with tit-for-tat indifference written all over you, ''stick bubbly!'' - the verbal equivalent of a shrug. It is a milder (though just as humourous) way of terminating a conversation than ''Och, away and scheuch your deuch!''

That is another phrase my dictionary isn't much help with. In literal translation, the English would be: ''Oh, off with you and distort your draught, '' which is not quite what my wife means, you ken, when she uses it. Between you and me I can't help wondering if it isn't one of her own inventions. The Scots undoubtedly have a great facility for energetic tongue-twisters, and someone must have been the first to say each of the gems that are in the dictionary.

Many of them are what I call ''doublers'' - such things as ''tweedle-dee-and-tweedle-dum,'' which I had always thought a Lewis Carroll original. In fact it is a Scottishism for ''clumsy'' or ''careless playing on the fiddle.'' Or there is ''shee-bree,'' which means ''water in the shoes,'' the perfect word-sound for the squelch many have felt but few spoken. ''Wigglety-wagglety,'' as might be guessed, means ''unstable,'' and ''niffle-naffle,'' to trifle away time. But ''wirsle-warsle'' (which sounds more like something agricultural from Devon) signifies, perhaps surprisingly, ''a hard, continuous struggle.''

Children's games are a rich source of verbal high jinks. Among my favourites so far are ''jump-the-cuddy'' and ''zeenty-teenty,'' though I must admit that for sheer imaginativeness ''kipperdy smash'' takes the prize. It sounds like a game of high daring and low cunning.

And there are the insults. I'm not too sure what it says about the national character, but there is hardly a page in the dictionary without at least one percussive word to lambaste the encroaching foe. Probably the very worst anyone can be labelled is ''Englisher''; but it is under the letter ''S'' that the most astonishing list of brickbats can be found. Who on earth would relish being called a shaviter, a sheepshank, a slimer or a sleug? Or being described as sleekit or squeefy? (I'd rather be an Englisher.)

There are compliments, too, of course, or ''terms of endearment,'' as the dictionary puts it: playfully precise phrases like ''jonky-daidles'' and ''lammie-loo.'' Even ''slibberkin'' - its ''S'' notwithstanding - is an affectionate thing to have whispered in your lug by your jo as you sit up the lum of a dreich winter's nicht.

It is a sober truth, however, that many of these excellent dictionary words are no longer in use. Today's Scot, unhappily, may even be ignorant of ''beflummery'' (vain imaginings) or ''gontrum-niddles'' (an exclamation of joy & c). Nor is ''rippadeeity'' probably any longer a loud noise caused by romping children, more's the pity.

Nevertheless it is still a fact that potato crisps (chips) come (like a pig) in a ''poke'' rather than a bag; that if you want to shake something, you still ''shuggle'' it; that aimless nattering on the phone is ''having a blether''; and that ''oose,'' ''stoor'' and even ''wooffies'' seem to be different kinds of fluff and dust encountered by anyone wielding a duster or vacuum cleaner. All is not lost. ''Auld lang syne'' hasn't swallowed everything. Scots are still as prickmedainty as ever about their pronunciation and phraseology. And all I can say to that is ''gontrum-niddles.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.