By Betty Kirkpatrick
Muckle is now best known to most people for its appearance in the old adage Mony a mickle maks a muckle. This is popularly thought to mean that a lot of small amounts of something will make a large amount of it. It is often used to try and encourage people to save little amounts of money in the hope, one day, that these will become a fortune.
The sentiment may be admirable, but the saying as it stands actually does not make much sense. Mickle and muckle, far from being opposites in meaning, actually mean the same thing. As nouns they both mean a large amount or a great deal of something. As adjectives they both mean large or great in size. Many Scots words have variations in spelling and muckle/mickle is an example. Meikle is another variation of the same word, as in the meikle stane (stone) mentioned in Tam o’ Shanter:
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Where drunken Charlie brak’s neck-bane:’
How the saying Mony a mickle maks a muckle came about is a bit of a mystery. The most likely explanation is that the phrase started out life as Mony a pickle maks a muckle. Pickle, unlike mickle, is opposite in meaning to muckle and means a small amount. This phrase, then, has the merit of making sense.
If that is the case, a most unlikely person appears to have been involved in the faulty rewording of the saying. That person is George Washington. In 1793 he referred in writing to a Scots saying: “many mickles make a muckle” adding “than which nothing in nature is more true”. I doubt if he single-handedly caused the mickle problem, but he certainly added to it.
Mony a mickle maks a muckle might be linguistically inaccurate, but it has spread its wings further into England than most Scots words and phrases have done. To add to the confusion, a version of the saying has appeared in some English dialects as Many a little makes a mickle.
The word muckle is derived from Old English micel , meaning great or large, which is associated with Old Norse mikill of the same meaning. Muckle can be used as a noun, as in the saying under discussion, or as in They dinna think muckle o’ him, used to emphasize a poor opinion of someone. However, muckle is often used as an adjective in a wide range of contexts, as in a muckle tree, a muckle hoose, a muckle difference, a muckle eejit (idiot) and so on.
Muckle feck refers to the larger or lion’s share of something, muckle coat to a greatcoat and muckle chair to a particularly large armchair. The muckle tae is the big toe and the town of Langholm in Dumfriesshire is frequently known as the Muckle Toon.
Muckle is also found in compound adjectives such as muckle-moued, having an exceptionally large mouth. Muckle-backit means having a good strong back, always an asset, and muckle-boukit, in one of its senses, means having a large powerful physique. In its other sense it means pregnant, hardly a flattering description of a mother-to-be.
Muckle has extended its senses to mean adult or grown up. Thus an expression such as someone’s muckle dochter can be ambiguous. She can either be a large (probably not a compliment) daughter or a grown-up daughter. Muckle can also mean high-ranking or important, as in the muckle fowk (people) of the toon.
Muckle fowk have often achieved their muckledom by being wealthy. This reminds me of another muckle saying: Moyen (influence) does muckle, but money does mair (more). True, very true. Our wealthy Westminster politicians are living proof of it.
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.