Useful Scots word: skail

Skailt milk <em>Picture: Newtown grafitti</em>
Skailt milk Picture: Newtown grafitti
By Betty Kirkpatrick

When I think of kail (last week’s Scots offering), I think of skail. This is not because the words rhyme, as I am rarely tempted to try my hand at verse. You should be thankful for this.

No, skail is Scots for to spill and I have childhood memories of being given stern injunctions not to skail the kail. This was a most sensible – and, indeed, pain-saving – order because my mother’s soup was always scalding hot. A few drops of this spilled on the skin would probably have people nowadays rushing to A&E, but those were hardier days. We just watched the blisters form and got on with supping the soup.

Incidentally, this childhood experience of soup has left me with a disinclination to order soup in a restaurant. Too often it tastes unpleasantly tepid. Having developed an asbestos mouth and lips at an early age, soup has to be boiling hot to appeal to my taste-buds.

Skail has come to us through northern Middle English and is probably Scandinavian in origin, having connections with Old Norse skilja, meaning to separate or divide. It was once thought that skail might be connected with Gaelic sgaoil, to scatter, but this is now considered to be much less likely than the Scandinavian source.

Skail, of course, is not restricted to spilling soup. The verb can be used to refer to the accidental spillage of any liquid, or even non-liquids. Thus, milk can skail from a torn carton or clothes can skail from a suitcase which has burst open.

This spilling-out process can even apply to people. If you have put on a few inches since you last wore a particular garment, you might find yourself skailin it (or bursting it at the seams) as you try to ease yourself into it. When the damage to the seams has been done the garment can be said to be skailt or skelt.

Skail is a word of several meanings. It can be used to refer to people scattering or dispersing after attending a meeting of some kind or after having been together in a building. Church congregations or hordes of school children can be said to skail from their respective buildings. The buildings can also be said to skail as they become empty of their occupants.

Skail can also mean to cause a group of people to disperse or to put them to flight. So police breaking up a riot can be said to skail the rioters – well, only if they are north of the border, or relatively close to it.

Skail can mean to scatter things deliberately as well as to spill something accidentally. You can, for example, skail seeds if you are a keen gardener. If you are an even keener gardener you can skail manure across the ground to encourage the seeds to grow. Should you be more couch potato than gardener, you can always stay indoors and skail a few rumours over a cup of tea. But dinna skail 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.

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