Humour and Heroism
Chapter VI - Some Scotch Words
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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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