Useful Scots word: scunner

Mushroom soup: Scunners our writer. <em>Picture: Stuart Spivack</em>
Mushroom soup: Scunners our writer. Picture: Stuart Spivack
By Betty Kirkpatrick

In the best tradition of Edinburgh Fringe entertainers, I am all in favour of a bit of audience participation, especially if it saves me some work. So I am grateful to Fi for comment on hoachin for suggesting the word scunner as a suitable topic for the column. It is an excellent choice because scunner is a good example of how descriptive Scots can be.

Scunner is associated with disgust or revulsion. Thus you can say that the sight of blood scunners you. If you are a vegetarian you might say that the smell of meat scunners you and I might say that the taste of cream of mushroom soup scunners me (it is one of my pet hates). The verb is often found in the passive and so you could say that you like lamb, but that you had so much of it on holiday that you are scunnered with it.

Scunner can also be associated with a less extreme reaction to something or someone and mean irritated, disapproving or disappointed. So a rejected candidate for a job might be heard to say he was scunnered at not getting the job. People can be scunnered when their football team loses once again (a seemingly common experience for some) or scunnered that it is teeming with rain on the one day that they were free to go to the beach. Many people are scunnered with their jobs, though dare not give them up, and more than a few voters would have been scunnered with the performance of their party in the general election.

Scunner can also be used as a noun, with meanings corresponding to the verb, as in “It’s a real scunner that there’s no direct train service there.” A pregnant woman who is subject to sudden food cravings or aversions might remark that she has taken a real scunner to coffee. You can take a scunner to someone whom you previously liked if they do something to irritate or upset you. Sometimes this process occurs just before you dump them.

People can also be referred to as scunners. You might accuse someone of being a right scunner for refusing to do as you wish to or just for arousing dislike or disapproval in you.

As is the case with so many words, the origin of scunner is unknown. The original meaning of the verb was more physical than its common meaning today. It meant to shrink back or flinch from someone or something. It is a small step from there to feeling revulsion.

Scunner has produced the adjectives scunnerfu and scunnersome, both meaning disgusting or nauseating. It has also give rise to scunneration, a noun used to refer to a particularly disgusting or offensive sight or to something that you particularly dislike. I once knew someone who used it instead of a four-letter word to vent her feelings of anger, pain, etc when there were children present.

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.

  • sally Green-Armytage

    Am I right in thinking that the word BYKE is a scots word meaning a wasp nest?

    • Flojo

      Yes, but I’m not sure of the spelling but that looks right.

  • Your words section is great and serves to remind this far-flung Scot of language not found in Yorkshire. Hate to lower the tone, but I did always wonder where the word “toley” derives from … Any ideas?

  • Flojo

    I was brocht up with the word scunner and plan to use it as soon as poss when the situs right. If I can’t I’ll be right scunnered.

  • K

    Re origin: I always thought scunner was a slurring of ‘sickener’.

  • David Park

    Origin:
    1325–75; ME (Scots) skunner to shrink back in disgust, equiv. to skurn to flinch (akin to scare) + -er -er6 , with loss of first r by dissimilation.

    • HUGH KERR HILSTON

      I have heard that the word skunner could be used in this sentence: my mother was insulted so badly that it skunners me tae ma stomache.Would you agree David??