By Betty Kirkpatrick
A friend was recently showing some foreign visitors round parts of northern Scotland and encountered the usual problem of finding somewhere to stay and eat out of season. She eventually found somewhere, commenting later “It was a bit couthie, but it was perfectly adequate and it had a great view of the loch”.
Knowing her well, I deduced from her comment that the accommodation was a good deal less sophisticated and trendy than she would have liked. The house was probably furbished with multi-coloured, lavishly patterned carpets and wallpaper which would have offended her minimalist taste.
Couthie as used by her was clearly not intended as a compliment, but this critical use is a fairly recent development. Couthie, when used of places, originally meant cosy or comfortable, or generally pleasant and agreeable. Indeed, it often still does. A couthie place with a view of a loch might be some travellers’ description of a perfect holiday location.
Couthie, which was a fairly late entrant into the Scots language, not making an appearance until the early 18th century, can also be used of people. A couthie host, for example, is one who is exceptionally friendly and sociable. If he or she extends a couthie welcome then it is a very warm one indeed. You are fortunate if one of your friends can rightly be described as couthie when you are in times of trouble, because it means that you have a sympathetic audience.
How did a word which is descriptive of such sterling qualities come to be used critically? Well, from being used as synonym for comfortable, it came to be a synonym for homely. Now a place described as homely is often regarded as somewhere warm, friendly and comfortable, but it can also be regarded as somewhere very simple or unpretentious and ordinary. Incidentally, the Americans go one further and use the word homely as a synonym for unattractive.
We now live in a world which is nothing if not pretentious. Being homely or ordinary is rarely regarded as an asset. In such an environment it is hardly surprising that couthie has lost some of its high-ground status and is now sometimes used critically.
Couthie may not always have the complimentary associations it once had, but it certainly has not reached the depths that the word uncouth has. Yet they are related, both having their origins in the Old English cuth, meaning known or familiar, which is derived from Old English cunnan, to know. Couthie is also related to Old Scots couth, meaning known or familiar.
Couthie’s change in meaning sometimes causes a degree of ambiguity. Is the reviewer describing folk music played by a local amateur band as couthie being complimentary or critical? I fear the latter is usually the case.
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.