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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter VI - Some Scotch Words Explained


Many Scottish terms have crept into English and require no comment, The best known of these are; `wee', that is `small'; 'bonnie', `beautiful'; `bairn', `child'.

There is a peculiar tenderness in these words that is lost in the translation.

`Bonnie Scotland', for example, is a term of endearment as well as of description. It brings a whole picture before the mind; and you can see the sun shining, and hear the larks singing. And you almost listen to the plashing of the burn at the foot of the brae.

`Bairn', meaning `child', is not known to all Southerns. And on the other side a word very like it, `bearings', (meaning `whereabouts'), is scarcely understood by the Northern peasant.

An English schoolboy when on a walking tour in the Lothians once lost his way. He called at a farmhouse and enquired of the "motherly body" he met there if she could direct him. "Can you help me, please?" he said. "I have quite lost my bearings".

He probably dropped the g of the last word; but even if he hadn't, this common nautical expression was quite strange to the farm-girl. Her amazement was unbounded when she noticed how young her interrogator was.

"Lost your bairns!" She exclaimed. "An' is their mither with them?" This so electrified the tourist that he deemed it prudent to beat a hasty retreat.

The game of cross purposes between English and Scotch is not uncommon. Once an English sportsman, who was staying at an inn for the summer fishing, was much troubled to get the right fly. He tried to get one of the maids to bring him what he wanted, but she could not understand.

"Dear me," he said at last impatiently, "did you never see a horse-fly?"

Willing to please, she replied apologetically: "Naa, Sir, A never saw a horse fly; but onct A saw a coo jump over a precipice"

But even the Scottish language itself has certain local usages that may be misleading. It seems that once upon a time in Edinburgh the word "carry" got to be used in a kind of technical sense, meaning "show upstairs", "usher in". Now one day an aristocratic lady belonging to that stately city was expecting two friends in the afternoon. So she had ordered her new Highland servant to "carry up the ladies" to the drawing-room when they should arrive.

The Highlander, however, had learned his English out of books, and was quite unacquainted with the local idiom. He took the word literally.

When the time came round, the aristocratic lady was aroused by hearing a funny scuffling noise on the stairs. Emerging from her room to ascertain what was the matter, she was horror-struck to perceive Donald ascending the stairs with some difficulty, bearing an indignant and struggling lady in his arms. It seems that he had said to the visitors: "Bide the rest of ye here awhile: I'll take this little one first."

In Edinburgh there are many words in common use that much resemble French. In fact these words are distinctly of French origin, and are only slightly Scotticised from the original. 'Douce' and `dour' speak for themselves. Then 'vizzy' means to `aim at'; and 'dementit' means `out of patience'.

`To fash oneself' means 'to be troubled about'. These and several others of a similar kind betray their derivation at a glance.

Some words closely resemble Dutch. Indeed the Lowland dialect possesses hundreds of these resemblances.

A good story is told of a learned professor and his nephew, who once visited Rotterdam and tried to discover the house where Erasmus was born.

The professor knew Dutch very well out of books; and could read, without too much trouble, the writings of two hundred years ago. But he could not make himself in the least degree intelligible when he tried to speak the language.

After repeated and disheartening attempts to secure the needful information from a derisive streetboy, the traveller was inclined to give up the quest in despair, when his nephew interposed: "Let me try Scotch on him, uncle, I bet I'll get something out of him."

He looked the youth straight in the face and said, broadly with emphasis: "Com' here; com' here, noo, an' tell 's, whaur's the hoose o' Erasmus?" At once the streetboy grasped the situation. "Jao, baas;" he said. "Zeker". And leading him to the well known gable he pointed it out triumphantly. "Doar heb je het huus van Erasmus." He thought it was some Hollander from far away, perhaps from the Betuwe.

And for the matter of that, it would not be difficult to imagine a conversation in Lowland Scotch which the same Rotterdam street-boy could have easily followed. Here it is: "What for thing is that, Davvid, afore yir dure?" "It's a lang, brade stane for the new kirk; an' it's a bit sherp on the tap. I'll breng it tae the kirk the morn, an' set it whaur it'll no hinner folk gangin' oot or in." Speak these sentences deliberately and every Dutch peasant will understand them.

A still more striking resemblance to Dutch lies in the Scottish love of diminutives. These, however, are formed in many cases by a clever use of the words `bit' and `wee'.

If we take the word dog, for instance, we can pile on diminutive upon diminutive in the Lowlands in a way that quite outdistances any dialect in the Netherlands.

Little dog is "doggie"; if it is to be still smaller, we may say "a bit doggie". If smaller still "a wee bit doggie". We reach the climax of diminutiveness in "a wee bit doggetie".

As a contrast to this similarity to Dutch one cannot help noticing how easily Scotch can drop its consonants. Burns has rendered this peculiarity familiar to all English readers, when he uses pu' for pull, and fu' for full, and a' for all; but it is not so well known that one can have an entire conversation in vowels.

Dean Ramsay instances the following. A woman entered a draper's shop, examined some cloth lying on the counter for sale, then looking up said, interrogatively: "Oo?"

"Aye, oo"; said the shopman. She continued: "A' oo'."

"Aye; a' oo," was the prompt reply.

She repeated her question more explicitly: "A' aeoo?" To which the reassurance was forthcoming: "Aye a' ae oo."

The explanation is simple. The woman wishing to know the quality of the cloth she was about to buy said: "Wool?" The shopman's answer was: "Yes; wool."

She then asked: "Is it all wool?" and he replied "Yes, all wool."

Not satisfied, she enquired again: "Is it all the same wool?" "Yes," he said. "It is all the same wool."

Most of the characteristically Scotch words require to be translated, if indeed translation be possible. There are two adjectives continually appearing in poetry, which can, no doubt, be adequately rendered in English.

These are 'braw' and 'couthie'. 'Braw' means `fine' or `strapping,' and is the term generally applied to the lads. 'Couthie', or loving, is of course the word to be applied to the lasses.

Among terms, however, that cannot be translated the most remarkable are 'pawky' and `canny'.

'Pawky' means slow, knowing, sly, shrewd, very modest in manner, but very keen of insight. There are many flavours of pawkiness, like fine brands of wine.

Here is one with a touch of pardonable insolence. A young, bombastic, preacher had wearied everybody with his affectations and with his extraordinary demeanour in the pulpit. At the close of the service he was introduced to a plain old laird, who had been especially restless. They had some talk together, and amongst other things the youth informed the old gentleman that he was very tired. "Tired, my man!" said the laird, "you tired? Man, if you are half as tired as I am, I pity you."

But mostly pawkiness is not so tom-plain, thought it may be sarcastic enough. "Come and dine with me next Friday," said a masterful old dame in Edinburgh to an acquaintance. He was quite willing to go, but answered in that semi-apologetic manner which some people affect: "Yes; I will, if I am spared." "Weel," replied the lady "if you're dead, I'll no expect you."

But, as generally understood, pawkiness as a rule wears a more benignant aspect, and may even be deferential. An inexperienced sportsman was out shooting once, and had missed all the birds in the course of the morning. At last, towards mid-day, he thought he hit one, and said excitedly: "Keeper, keeper, that bird will come down." "Aye, Sir," was the patient but significant response; "It will come down, when it's hungry."

One of the most pawky remarks that tradition gives us refers to a minister's long sermons. They were very long - these sermons - and though he was a good preacher, his people did not care for hearing so much at a time.

They had protested again and again, but without avail. Indeed he seemed rather to expand than to contract these admirable prelections of his.

One day he exchanged pulpits with a neighbouring clergyman. The stranger preached quite a short discourse, and despite of the fact that it was a trifle abrupt about the end, everybody was pleased.

When all was over, he seemed to feel that something required explanation. And in the vestry he told his elders how it was his sermon was so short. "I had my sermon written," he said; "and had left it on my study table. At the last moment, however, my favourite terrier entered the room in my absence, and worried the manuscript, devouring the last half. "I'm exceedingly sorry," he added.

"It's a right," said the elders, "there is no need to apologize for such an excellent sermon."

A quiet voice was heard from the end of the table: "Could ye no give oor Minister a young pup from that fine terrier dog of yours?"

As for 'canniness', that is perhaps best exemplified by the proverbial phrase: `A Scotch mist', meaning 'a regular downpour'.

One can allot high praise to something by using that canny and highly characteristic formula: "It is no bad" or, "It might be waur."

There was a fearful scrimmage once between a farmer and a gamekeeper; and the case came up for trial. The lawyer wanted to show that the farmer was quarrelsome and questioned him accordingly, asking him did he not fight with every gamekeeper he met. "Me feicht! A niver feicht with onybody."

"Did you not with George Lawson?"

"Hoots, man, A see what you're at, noo. Geordie and me had a bit o' an argument. He called me a lear; and A just flung him over the dike. But there was nae feichtin' about it, ava'" (ava - at all).


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