By Betty Kirkpatrick
Some words are much better than others at conveying their range of meaning by their very sound. Such a word is modern English flit, as in small birds flitting from tree to tree. Somehow the short word suggests both lightness and swiftness.
However, these qualities are rarely present in connection with the Scots word flit. In Scots, the most common modern meaning of flit is to move house. Unlike the flitting bird or butterfly, the flitting person is likely to experience heaviness and a painful lack of speed.
How did you ever get that cumbersome wardrobe up all those narrow stairs? More importantly, how will you ever get it down all those narrow stairs? Will you have to take out the window panes and lower the wardrobe down on ropes? Will it reach earth safely?
As to lack of speed, you are already on your third day of going through all those old business papers that were estimated to take two hours max. And those piles of newspapers and magazines with the potentially interesting articles that have accumulated over several years unread? Suddenly they make fascinating and urgent reading. And you have yet to clear the attic.
In order to be able to flit, as in move house, with lightness and swiftness, you really need to be a minimalist with hardly any furniture and certainly no clutter. Alternatively, you could be one of those compulsive flitters who never stays in one house long enough to unpack. Once they have the keys to a new property they are off checking estate agents’ windows and internet sites to find their next home.
A flitter, as you might expect, is someone who flits in the house sense. The word, however, can also apply to a professional removal man or woman. Is that the answer, then? Call in the professionals and introduce some lightness and swiftness into the flitting process that way. Yes, if you are exceptionally lucky; no, if you are not. Flitting, like Christmas, is a major source of stress, whoever carries it out.
To flit in the house-moving sense was once commonly used in English as well as Scots, but it has died out in England, except for northern English dialects. Flit, derived from the Old Norse verb flytja meaning to transport, was originally used to mean to remove anything from one place to another, not just a family and their belongings. Specifically it was used to mean to move tethered animals to a new field to graze. It could also mean to depart, or even to depart this life and die.
Flit can also be a noun referring, like flitting, to the act of moving house. The traditional day for farm workers to leave one employer and move to another was known as Flit Friday. An old saying, however, advises that intending flitters should avoid Saturdays. The saying, Saturday flit’s a short sit, means that Saturday flitters will not stay long in the next place, something compulsive flitters would doubtless welcome.
The expression moonlight flit has rather a romantic ring to it. It sounds as though it might, for example, refer to star-crossed lovers who are eloping. Alas, its meaning is much more prosaic. It means a house-moving that takes place suddenly at night in an attempt by the flitter to avoid paying debts. Given the present economic state of affairs, moonlight flits may well be on the increase.
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.