Many of us who have a Celtic genetic inheritance have very fair skins. Usually this creates no problems and a fair skin can be a decided beauty asset. Pale skin looks fine against a background of its native heath, but transfer it to a sun-baked foreign beach and things change dramatically. Pale skin can stand out like an unfortunate sore thumb when surrounded by a sea of bronzed bodies. The Scots word peelie-wally springs to mind.
Peelie-wally, also spelt peelie-wallie and with wally pronounced to rhyme with sally, can mean pale, but in this sense it is far from being a compliment. You might describe a flawless porcelain complexion as pale, but you are very unlikely to describe it as peelie-wally. Rather, peelie-wally means pallid or washed-out looking, like the odd pale body among a multitude of sun-tanned ones.
Peelie-wally is often used to refer to the kind of paleness that accompanies ill health. If a child is looking peelie-wally it is often a sign of impending sickness of some kind. In fact, peelie-wally can mean ill-looking or sickly or, by extension, thin or feeble.
Things as well as people can be described as peelie-wally when something colourless or insipid is being referred to. For example, you might refer to the beige décor of someone’s house as peelie-wally if you are the sort of person who prefers strong colours. Or you might criticize the pastel colours of someone’s dress as being too peelie-wally. If you like a strong cup of tea you might describe a weaker form of the beverage as peelie-wally.
An activity or performance of some kind can also be referred to as peelie-wally when it lacks vigour or vitality. Not surprisingly, this use usually occurs in connection with Scotland’s obsession with football. Apparently there are many instances of peelie-wally performances on the pitch.
The expression peelie-wally started life out simply as peelie. This is likely to have a connection with the Scots word palie meaning sickly, listless, delicate or stunted in growth and palie is, in turn, likely to be connected with English pale.
However, it has been suggested that the origin of the peelie of peelie-wally may be imitative of a kind of whining, feeble noise made by people who are ill. As for the wally, it may just have been added for effect and may have been influenced by the Scots word paewae meaning pallid, sickly or insipid. The suggestion that there is a connection with the whiteness of wallie, meaning china or porcelain, seems less likely.
But back to our sun-baked beach. There is good news for the peelie-wally. Now that over-exposure to the sun is known to cause major skin problems, official health advice is to cover up in the sun. There is now no need to reveal yourself in all your peelie-wally glory on the beach. In any case, the peelie-wally skin does not bronze. It just goes an unattractive shade of red.
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.