Home Heritage Useful Scots Words: Reek

Useful Scots Words: Reek

Reek is one of those words that exist in both Scots and English but with some variation in meaning. The word can act as both a noun and a verb, the noun being derived from Old English rec, smoke and the verb from Old English reocan, to emit smoke. Reek has connections with German Rauch, smoke and rauchen, to smoke.

But to the Scots-English divide. In Scots we tend to think of the core meaning of the noun reek as smoke, of the kind that used to be emitted by chimneys, both domestic and commercial, before the advent of smoke-free zones and central heating. Some of us would instantly associate the word with Auld Reekie, a name given to Edinburgh in recognition of the pall of smoke that once surrounded it. The smoke has gone, but the name has stuck, at least in fairly literary circles.

In English reek meaning smoke now only exists in the part of England bordering Scotland or in archaic, literary contexts. The most common meaning refers to something more unpleasant than mere smoke. It means a very disagreeable smell, as in the nauseating reek of rotting meat or the reek of stale urine permeating the lifts. Smoke may be acrid but it is not as bad as this.

Reek as a verb in Scots commonly means to give out smoke, as The air was much clearer now since chimneys no longer reeked all day. Again this meaning is sometimes found in northern English or in literary or archaic English, but, once again, English tends to associate more unpleasant things with reek, as in The room reeked of stale beer. or He always reeks of cheap aftershave.

This meaning is not always literal. It can be figurative and mean to be suggestive of something nasty or decidedly undesirable, as in The so-called investigation reeked of a cover-up. or The place reeked of years of neglect and despair.

Scots has the well-known phrase lang may your lum reek used to express the speaker’s good wishes for the future. In fact a reeking lum could either be a blessing or a distinct drawback. It was a blessing if the owner of the house had enough fuel to cause a reek to rise up through the chimney and so keep the household warm. On the other hand, a reeking lum could be one in which smoke wafts back down the chimney and covers the room, causing the inhabitants to cough and splutter.

A reeking lum could be even more of a drawback if you were a male of the species. If a man had a nagging, domineering wife he could be said to have a reeking lum at home. Very likely the wife in question would gie (=give) the man through the reek or even gie him it het (=hot) and reekin. In other words she would give him a good scolding. In such a case he could be said to be getting his kail (=soup) through the reek. Hopefully she would stop short of severe physical punishment and would not gar his rumple (=buttocks) reek.

If the wife was furiously angry she could be said to be fair reekin and consequently raise a reek, cause a great fuss or commotion. But she may have had a reason. The husband could have come home once again fair reekin, not angry, but very drunk.

  • Lucie Thor

    I was under the impression reekie in Auld reekie was to do with smoke too. Until it was pointed out it came before the new town was under way, and the inhabitants lived in very close proximity with the animals. It also come before the city had a problem with smoke.

  • Biz Miller

    Isn’t ‘reek’ Old Norse? As in: Reek =smoke + wick = bay equals Rekyavik, or ‘smoky bay’ from the geothermal vents that steamed there.