Home Heritage Useful Scots words Useful Scots word: hen

Useful Scots word: hen

More to hen than that, pal... <em>Picture: Pathlost</em>

More to hen than that, pal... Picture: Pathlost

By Betty Kirkpatrick

The Scots are traditionally known for their dourness and certainly not for their demonstrativeness. Not surprisingly, then, the Scots language is sparse in terms of endearment.

If you are belatedly penning a valentine to your loved one and seeking a Scots term of endearment you could try jo. This can be applied to both sexes and has the advantage of being easy to find rhymes for. Jo has the alternative spelling joe and is, in origin, associated with the English word joy.
It was good enough for Burns, as in John Anderson, my jo, and so it is certainly good enough for amateur valentine writers. Jo is now used mostly in literary contexts, rather than in everyday communication. Still, your do-it-yourself valentine may be a work of literary art.

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The most famous Scots everyday endearment is hen. In Scots the word hen can be used as the name of a fowl in much the same way as it is in English, and it can be used instead of the English word chicken. Thus, the English chicken soup was often known as hen-broth or hen-bree and the English chicken-hearted translates into Scots as hen-herted. A hen-wife was a woman employed to tend hens and other poultry. Interestingly, the term hen-wife, when applied to a man, is a man who is rather womanish and over-concerned with matters more appropriate to females.

As an endearment, hen is applied to members of the female of the species by members of either gender and is now more common in the west of the country than in the east. Like many so-called endearments, such as the English love and dear, hen is not just used to a female that the speaker is fond of.

True, it is often used to wives, girlfriends, daughters, other female members of the family or female friends. However, hen has become just a familiar form of address which can be directed at any female, whether she is your best friend, a nodding acquaintance or a total stranger. You will find it regularly used by people in shops, bus drivers, taxi drivers and so on to their customers.

Hen, in common with love, dear, etc, is not always uttered in friendly tones when used as a form of address. Mostly, it is used unthinkingly in neutral tones, part of the bored and boring automatic exchanges of mundane, everyday life, but it can be used with irony or even hostility. A woman is likely to be greeted with a hostile “Thanks, hen,” if she has unwittingly or intentionally upset someone. Her failure to give a big enough tip (a serious offence) may elicit such a response.

The use of endearments as a form of address by total strangers is a source of annoyance to some women, becoming an issue at the time when complaints about sexism in language were at their height. Unlike other complaints, the endearment protest did not have much success.

In any case, men, too, are subjected to this endearment business. In Scotland, the word son is often used by older men, and, for that matter, older women, as a common greeting to younger men. Be careful of this use. It can sound a tad patronising and listeners who are not familiar with this use may think that the speaker has an unusually high number of male offspring.

When it comes to these familiar forms of address my own particular pet hate is pal. Pal is not a Scots word and this use of it is by no means restricted to Scotland, but I have a feeling that it is particularly common here. Pal is used indiscriminately to men or women, mostly by men. It usually comes into the unthinking or hostile categories of greeting rather than the friendly. Watch it, pal!

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.

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  • Juan San Claro

    A nation´s people or race cannot be “traditionally known” for their dourness. Stereotypically or prejudicially perhaps! Are Mexicans ‘traditionally known’ for their lazyness? Any articles that sets off on such a discrimantory foot is only worth reading with dour skpiticism! And only if there is no paint drying on your wall.