Home Heritage Useful Scots words Useful Scots word: dour

Useful Scots word: dour

Dour skies
Dour skies

Dour skies. Picture: Quinn Dombrowski

Many Scots nowadays are stay-at-homes at heart, not venturing forth much to other countries except for the odd business trip, weekend break or the almost mandatory two-week beach laze. It seems recently that even their holiday travel has been, curtailed thanks to the recession and cutbacks, and they are becoming staycationers (a very unattractive word).

Many Scots words also stay at home. Indeed they are even less likely to settle elsewhere than the people. However, just occasionally we find that one of these words has slipped off to foreign parts and has been adopted by the natives there. These parts often include the States, Canada, or Australia. Sometimes they include the area south of Watford. And it is to that area that the Scots word dour has spread. You will even find it in English dictionaries.

Dour is pronounced to rhyme with moor, although in the south I have sometimes heard it pronounced to rhyme with glower, doubtless a happy combination of words if you are a budding melancholic poet. Dour has been known in Scots since the 14th century, but it is of uncertain origin. However, it seems likely that it has connections with Latin durus, hard.

The word dour in England and elsewhere is often used with reference to Scots people, and not in a complimentary way. However enlightened modern civilisation has supposedly become, racial stereotyping is still alive and well, and living in a great many places. A common racial stereotype is the dour Scot. The drunken Scot is an even more common racial stereotype, but let us stick to one thing at a time.

Dour is an adjective of many parts – but, as far the stereotyped dour Scots is concerned, it means humourless and sullen. Smiles are rarely seen on the face of such a one. However, there are Scots who would say that this alleged lack of humour is a misinterpretation. Humour is not lacking at all, but takes the form of a subtle, dry wit that is beyond the comprehension and appreciation of those who prefer their humour in more obvious, laugh-a-minute, form.

Dour can also mean obstinate, stubborn or unyielding. If you are the kind of person who refuses to allow people to railroad you into things, then you will see yourself as a resolute person sticking to your guns, while others may describe you as dour.

Not only people can be described as dour. A task that is exceptionally difficult to carry out can also be so described. Thus an arduous job such as digging the garden or clearing the driveway after a very heavy snowstorm can be dubbed dour.

If someone or someone is reluctant or slow to do something, they can be referred to as dour. This use can cover a whole range of situations. School pupils can be described as dour if they are reluctant to settle down to their studies or if they have difficulty in learning. Fish can be described as dour if they have the sense to keep a low underwater profile and refuse to take the bait. A fire can be described as dour if it is slow to burn and does not produce instant warming flames.

Weather gets everywhere and it is not surprising that dour can also be applied to it. Dour skies are dark and threatening and a dour day is a gloomy, bleak one, the sort that makes us long for one that is simply dreich.