Useful Scots word: syboe

<em>Picture: Adactio</em>
Picture: Adactio

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Time was when salads only made their appearance in summer. Now things have changed, and salads are an all-year round feature of menus. That is not the only thing that has changed – so has the very nature of salads.

A few decades ago the average salad in Scotland consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, often a hard-boiled egg, sliced and going slightly green, and a syboe or two. The average salad in England was much the same except that the syboe was called a spring onion. The more adventurous diner might add from a bottle a splodge of what was known as salad cream. This was the forerunner of the ubiquitous mayonnaise, frequently now shortened to mayo.

Now this traditional summer fare has been replaced with a dish of different kinds of lettuce and similar leafy vegetables, known in gourmet circles simply as leaves. At least this is a welcome relief from the tasteless iceberg lettuce. Less sophisticated salads, known as mixed salads, hark back somewhat to their progenitor and contain lettuce and tomatoes and a few slices of cucumber. Sometimes the syboe, which looks like a miniature leek, remains, but thankfully the greening egg is usually absent.

The ‘sy’ in syboe is pronounced to rhyme with the ‘si’ of side while the ‘boe’ is pronounced to rhyme with be or bay. If you have been unable to find it in some Scots dictionaries this is because it is often listed under its original spelling of sybow. Many Scots words have several alternative spellings, and syboe is no exception. Two possible spellings, sybie and sybae, reflect the pronunciation.

In relatively recent years I have occasionally seen syboes listed for sale in a shop window. The owners have had the usual problem with the apostrophe and the word has been spelt syboe’s.

Syboe has its linguistic origins in an onion. The word siboe is a reminder of our French connections, being derived from the French word ciboule, an onion. This, turn is derived from Latino cepula, a little onion.

Inevitably, problems are encountered when you use the word syboe to people who have no knowledge of the Scots language. The problems are even greater with speakers of American English. Not only do they not know what a syboe is, they might not know what a spring onion is. They tend to call this either a green onion or a scallion.

Scallion can cause further problems since a scallion can also be a shallot. I don’t know my onions and so I will not pursue this any further.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

  • Knightswood Gardener

    Thanks Betty.
    Been growing siboes the last two summers and i always thought it was spelt sybies, thanks for the Scots word articles, they’re excellent.

    Regards. A Gardener.

  • James

    If it’s pronounced Sibays why the hell is it spelled siboes?
    Don’t tell me we have the ‘Kelvinside’ patois even in Auld Scots

  • thatscottishwoman

    The French connection. Gigot chop and ashet pie still used in our household.

    Re the iceberg lettuce, I agree. However, rocket seem to have taken its place, generally served up dry, limp and nasty as a poor excuse for a side salad.

  • Thanks Betty, fancy giving us a cowp/coup (spill, tip), rouser (watering can) or bogie (cart, trolley)?