Useful Scots word: Smout

As a nation we tend not to wear our hearts on our sleeves or to give rein to outpourings of admiration. So it is that our language tends to be more suited to directing insults, rather than compliments, at people.

As is the case with other languages, such insults are often based on the physical appearance of the target of the insult. If you are not Mr or Ms Average in appearance then you could be in trouble.

Several such insults refer to the fact that the person they are aimed at is considered to be particularly small in stature. Perhaps this is because it is assumed that small people will not have the strength to fight back, if words should come to blows. Of course this is not always the case. A lack of height is not necessarily accompanied by a lack of muscle and strength. Strong stuff can come in small bulk.

A person who is considered to be lacking in physical stature, usually with an accompanying air of puniness or insignificance, in Scots is known as a smout. The word has the alternative spelling smowt and is pronounced to rhyme with English bout. Smout has given rise to the adjective smouty meaning insignificant, of very little importance.

For some reason the word smout is often thought not to be effective enough on its own. It seems to require extra emphasis to make its point and so is often preceded by the word wee, as in Who does that wee smout think he is? or Imagine a wee smout like that wanting to play rugby! or What on earth made her marry a wee smout like him?

Smout has rather a fishy background, not in the idiomatic sense of slightly suspect, but in the literal sense. In fact, smout has clear-cut connections with a kind of fish particularly associated with Scotland, the salmon.

I am not sure how much you know, or want to know, about salmon. Very likely your interest in it only comes alive when it is presented on a plate, either in fresh or smoked form, accompanied by a slice of lemon or a dollop of mayonnaise. It may, therefore, surprise some of you to know that the salmon is of linguistic, as well as culinary, interest.

This linguistic interest is related to the salmon’s rather adventurous life cycle. Salmon are described as anadromous owing to the fact that they are born in fresh water, migrate to the sea and then move back to fresh water. During the course of this migratory life they acquire a few labels to refer to their stage of development.

In the early stages of its development, when it is still living in its native stretch of fresh water, the salmon is known as a parr. When the parr matures enough to leave its fresh water habitat and make for the sea, it develops silvery scales and changes its name to smolt. Later, when the mature Atlantic salmon returns to its native fresh waters, it takes the name of grilse.

You will have observed that the fish in the middle in the above description is smolt and it is there that we have the origin of smout. Smolt itself is of uncertain origin, although it may have its roots in Old English. The word may be related to English smelt, a type of silvery sea or freshwater fish.

As indicated above, a smout is now used to refer to a small insignificant person, but it can also be used of a small child. Apparently, a crowd of small children can be described as a smoutrie. This is a great word. I must try it out on the grandchildren.