Useful Scots Word: Body

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We mostly associate the written word body with the physical structure of a human or animal, although those of us who are addicted to tales of murder and mystery may be more familiar with the word body when the said structure is lifeless. Body in the human structure sense occurs in both English and Scots, although in Scots it is often pronounced boady.

There is another body which has a different meaning and a different pronunciation. Pronounced along the lines of buddy, it is derived from Old English bodigand is used to refer to a person. Although it does exist in English, its use is much more widespread in Scots.

In English, the most common use of body is in compound pronouns, as anybody, nobody, everybody, etc. Scots has equivalents of these in the form of onybody, anybody, as in Can onybody park here?; naebody, nobody, as in Naebody kens (=knows) yet.; a’body, everybody, as in A’body hates him.

In Scots, body is often found on its own, rather than as part of a compound, although it is often found accompanied by an adjective. Somehow I always think of it as rather a cosy, friendly  word suggesting a degree of affection, sympathy, or admiration as in She’s a kind old body. The old man’s quite ill, but he’s a cheery body  The old woman’s a sad wee body.

However, body can apparently suggest less admirable, more contemptible qualities. It appears that someone you dislike or disapprove of can be described as a right mean wee body or an interfering old body.

That brings me to the fact that I seem always to have come across body with relevance to the old or the small, and often to a combination of the two. Am I wrong about this too? Would you be likely to describe a horrible hunk built like a tank as a nasty big body?

Certainly there is some evidence of a connection between body and small people. One of the now generally less common meanings is a little person. Body was also once applied to a child, usually one from a large family.

The phrase nae ither body is used to emphasize that there is no one else involved, as in Tam lives there by himself and nae ither body’s allowed in.  The expression a’body’s body, meaning literally every person’s person, can be used to refer to someone who is generally a favourite, liked by everyone. However, it has a darker side, being also used to mean a sycophant or toady.

In Scots, body as applied to a person is often used to refer to the person who is speaking or writing, as in Can’t a body get any peace around here? Or Where can a body get a drink in this place? Body here is the equivalent of English one, as in Can one not get any peace around here?

This use of one was once very common, but has now mostly been replaced by the more informal “you”, one being considered the preserve of royals or similar posh people. Some see this as an example of the dumbing down of the English language. Others were very glad to get rid of one.

People who are not generally familiar with the Scots language but who are aficionados of the works of Robert Burns are likely to have come across the word body meaning a person in the song Comin through the rye.

Gin a body meet a body
Comin through the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
Gin a body meet a body
Comin through the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld (=world) ken?

A case of the two meanings of body literally coming together, perhaps.