By Betty Kirkpatrick
The talk at the bus stop the other day was, as it often is, about the weather. The conversation centred on the fact that, for once, the east of Scotland was enjoying a remarkably balmy winter’s day while the south of England was shivering in the cold and snow. Could this situation last, we all wondered?
Optimism is not in general a Scottish characteristic. Life, and sporting events in particular, has knocked it out of us. Better to assume the worst and then we will not be disappointed. So it was that at least two people in the bus said “I hae ma doots” – and they were right to have these. The weather clouded over shortly afterwards.
The Scots noun doot, which has the alternative forms dout and doubt, is pronounced to rhyme with soot whatever the spelling. “I hae ma doots” in Scots is the direct equivalent of English “I have my doubts”, used when someone is doubtful about the outcome of something. Likewise nae doot is the equivalent of no doubt, as in No doubt we’ll know soon / Nae doot we’ll ken soon.
Doot as a noun is the counterpart of English doubt, but the situation with regard to the verb is not so simple. Admittedly, the Scots verb can act as the direct equivalent of the English verb to doubt, meaning to have doubts about something or to think that something is untrue or unlikely, as in Ah doot / I doubt we’ll get there in time for the meeting, or as in:
I doot na whyles but thou may thieve;
What then, poor beastie? Poor beastie, thou maun live!
In these lines from To a Mouse by Robert Burns, the poet is telling the mouse that he does not doubt that it steals sometimes, but then the creature has to live.
However, there is more to the Scots verb than that. It commonly means to fear or suspect that something is the case, as in, Ah doot he’s deid (I fear he’s dead), or Ah doot we’re too late. The boat’s gone. Doot can also mean just to expect or rather think, as in He’s no here yet. I doot the traffic’s bad.
Scots doot and English doubt are both derived from Middle English doute. This has its origins in Old French douter, to fear, a descendant of Latin dubitare, to waver, to be uncertain.
The noun doot has given rise to dooter, dootfu and dootless, equivalent to English doubter, doubtful and doubtless and used in the same way as these. Dootsome, with the alternative spelling dootsum, is also a derivative of doot and has several meanings, all suggesting a degree of uncertainty. These include ambiguous, uncertain in outcome, undecided in opinion or risky.
There is a Scots noun dout or dowt that has nothing to do with uncertainty and it is pronounced to rhyme with English doubt. It means a cigarette end and has no connection with doot or doubt. Instead, it may well be derived from the verb dout, an English dialect word meaning to extinguish a fire. No doubt you will have seen a sea of these douts littering the pavement outside pubs, whatever the weather.
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.