By Betty Kirkpatrick
It is January, birth month of Robert Burns, and so it is fitting to turn to his works for inspiration. Although I have a lifelong dislike of all rodents, apart from the red squirrel, I decided to reacquaint myself with To a Mouse.
Burns was moved to write this after accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest with his plough. As many of you will know, the poem opens with the poet addressing the said mouse as “wee, sleekit, cowrin, timorous beastie”.
Today the Scots word sleekit is mostly used as the Scots equivalent of some not very admirable English adjectives, such as cunning, crafty, sly, ingratiating, unctuous and generally untrustworthy. Can this be an appropriate way to describe a hapless, homeless mouse?
The answer is no. Burns had a different meaning in mind. He was not casting aspersions on the moral character of the mouse.
The word sleekit, a two-syllable word pronounced as it is spelt, is an adjective formed from the Scots verb to sleek. This verb, which is derived from Old English, means to make smooth or to polish, echoing the meaning of the English verb sleek, as in sleek back your hair. The derived adjective sleekit means smooth or glossy, as in a well-fed cat wi a sleekit coat.
This was the meaning that Burns had in mind when he addressed the mouse, although it is difficult to see how the mouse could be looking particularly glossy, given the life of hardship that Burns attributes to it.
The Scots verb to sleek has meanings other than to make smooth. One meaning is to move along in a furtive manner, to slink, steal or sneak along. Another is to flatter or praise someone excessively with a view to bringing advantage to yourself. Based on this is the phrase sleek in wi, meaning to curry favour with.
From a combination of these two meanings of the verb sleek comes the adjective sleekit with its sense of, crafty, sly, etc, often used of people to emphasize their general lack of integrity. It can also appear in various combinations, as in sleekit-gabbit (-gabbit meaning –mouthed from gab, the mouth) or sleekit-tongued, both meaning smooth-tongued, glib or oily.
We tend to be a bit preoccupied with weather thoughts in January, even more so than at other times of the year. We are understandably particularly concerned with it this year, given our unfortunate experiences in December. Sleekit can help us out here, for it can be a weather word.
When applied to weather, sleekit means deceptive. We have many deceptive days -days that start out looking relatively bright and end in pouring rain or swirling snow. If you decide to adopt this use of sleekit it could be on your lips quite a lot.
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.