Home Heritage Useful Scots words

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.

Auld is the Scots form of the English word old and it is often used in much the same contexts. For example, old clothes translates as auld claes, old friends as auld freens, old house as auld hoose and so on.

However, auld has some uses that are all its own. It is often used to describe relationships. A grandfather can be referred to as auld daddy or auld faither and a grandmother as auld mither. One generation back a great-grandfather can be known as auld granfaither and the female equivalent as auld granmither.

An auld uncle is not necessarily an old uncle, but a great uncle, his spouse being an auld auntie. An auld son is not a male who is stricken in years. Nor is it the equivalent of the colloquial, rather patronizing and now dated expression, old son. Instead, it is used to refer to the oldest son of a family. Similarly, auld brither can be used to apply to your oldest brother.

The term auld yin is unisex and can be applied to either of your parents. I have also heard it used it of a female spouse. When capitalized as Auld Yin it can be used to refer to the devil.  This is only one of many auld words for this creature from hell.

We have Auld Clootie, Auld Hornie, Auld Mahoun, Auld Nick, Auld Saunders, Auld Spunkie and several others. Another of the devil’s nicknames is Auld Enemy, but this can also be applied to England in recognition of the hostility and often open warfare that raged between the two countries for hundreds of years. Even nowadays the expression is sometimes mentioned at times of football or rugby matches between Scotland and England..

Scotland had friends as well as enemies. For a long time the closest of these was France and this friendship gave rise to the expression the Auld Alliance. The friendly links between France and Scotland so named began in the thirteenth century when both countries regarded England as a common enemy. Later they were much strengthened by the French connections of Mary Queen of Scots. You sometimes still hear the expression when France is playing England in an international match.

Auld is often associated with time and dates. The last night of the year, now mostly known as Hogmanay or perhaps by the more anglicized version, New Year’s Eve, was once most commonly known as Auld Year’s Nicht.  Auld Year’s Day is, as you would expect, the last day of the year.

More difficult to figure out is Auld Day or Aul Day. This was once frequently used to refer to the day after a major celebration, such as a wedding, a ball, a feast, etc. It was apparently a day devoted to recovery from the excesses of the day before, a day when little work was done, although more than a little alcohol might be consumed– a large hair of the dog perhaps.

Auld is encountered by a great many people outside Scotland because of its appearance in the internationally known song Auld Lang Syne.  Sung at the end of various forms of celebrations, the song was written by Robert Burns to a well-known traditional tune. Lang syne means literally long since and so auld lang syne refers to the days of long ago. A word of warning. When singing this song remember that the initial letter is pronounced like the s in sink not like the z in zinc.

Burns described the town of Ayr as Auld Ayr in his poem Tam o Shanter while Edinburgh was often referred to, and sometimes still is, as Auld Reekie because of all the smoke which once issued from its chimneys. Auld has another connection with chimneys because auld wife can mean a rotating chimney cowl as well as an old woman.

 Auld wife can also be used to describe a fussy, pernickety, gossipy man, as in He’s a right auld wife. The meaning of auld man is more difficult to guess except in its literal meaning. Figuratively it means the same, unchanged, as in I hadn’t seen Jock for years, but he was still the auld man.

Someone who has a great deal of experience of something can be said to be an auld used hand. Someone who is auld in the horn is old and less fit, physically or mentally than formerly. I might just fall into the first category. I certainly fall into the second.

Eavesdropping on the conversations of fellow bus passengers is often a good way to remind you of the richness of the Scots language. The other day I witnessed two elderly women who met by accident on the bus greeting each other with great enthusiasm. Said one, ‘It’s good to see you, Jean. We haven’t had a blether for ages.’ They then proceeded to have an extended face-to-face blether for the rest of the journey while others chattered on their mobiles.

In this sense the Scots word blether, pronounced to rhyme with tether, means a chat, often a long chat with a good deal of juicy gossip thrown in. For example you might say that many people who join a book group do so to have a good blether over a glass or two of wine rather than to take part in a great literary debate.

When applied to a person the noun blether means someone who is given to talking at too great length. You know the sort. They go wittering on and on long after the listener has ceased to listen. Blether can also be used to refer to someone who is apt to talk a lot of foolish nonsense. Often the two meanings meet together in one person.

The plural form of the noun, blethers, also takes up these themes of foolishness and long-windedness. It means foolish, nonsensical talk or long-drawn-out rambling in which there can be an element of bragging. Bletheration and bletherie are less well-known words for foolish talk

As an exclamation blethers! means nonsense or rubbish. Should someone say something that you are deeply sceptical of or totally in disagreement with you can give expression to your reaction by exclaiming ‘Blethers! If you feel that a stronger expletive is inappropriate.

As with a great many words, the noun blether has a corresponding verb. This was first recorded in Scots in the fifteenth century. Until the nineteenth century it was commonly used to mean to speak indistinctly or to stammer. More usually, its meaning is line with the noun senses of blether and means to talk or chat, to indulge in foolish talk, or to go and on about something, often something unimportant. As is the case with the noun, the verb is also sometimes connected with boasting.

From the verb blether comes bletherin, used both as a noun and adjective to refer to foolish talk or verbosity, and, sometimes, to indistinct speech. Foolish talk and indistinct speech come together in one of the many Scots expressions for to be drunk. The phrase be bletherin fou (=literally, full) means to be so drunk as to talk non-stop nonsense indistinctly. You must have witnessed an example of this, although I am sure that you yourself have never been in such a state.

Blether has an equivalent in English, the word blather, mostly found in informal or dialects contexts. As a verb this means to talk at length either without making much sense or about things that are of little importance. As a noun it means long-winded talk of little meaning or importance.

Blether and blather are Old Norse in origin. They are connected with the Old Norse word blathra meaning nonsense or to speak indistinctly or inarticulately. An alternative form of blather is blither, most commonly found as blithering, as in a blithering idiot.

Blether has brought to us a word which, to me, is rather unattractive, but then it has rather an unattractive meaning. The word is bletherskite, with the alternative forms bletherinskite, bletheranskite and bletherumskite, and it is an insulting term used to refer to a person who talks a lot of nonsense.

The origin of the skite element is uncertain, although it has been suggested that this is derived from skate the fish. Apparently skate was once used as an insult and, certainly we still have the non-flattering term cheapskate.

We passed on the expression bletherskite, in the form blatherskite, not only to some English dialects but also to American English. I will not apologize for this when you think of some of the words that America has passed on to us.

What about sneck asked someone after reading my article on snib? Good question. Snecks and snibs are quite closely associated because both of them relate to the shutting of entrances and exits.

A sneck is a latch on a door or gate that is lifted by raising a small lever, the lever being traditionally known as a sneckin pin. If a door or gate is on the sneck the door is closed by means of a latch, but not locked. If, on the other hand, it is left aff (=off) the sneck the catch is left off and the door is unlatched, affording an easy entrance to all and sundry. Nowadays people are rarely so trusting as to leave a door in such a state. Insurance companies would have a fit.

To lift a sneck, as you would expect, literally means to lift a latch. Figuratively, the phrase means to act in a stealthy, crafty way in the manner of one creeping surreptitiously and illegally into a house– perhaps one where the door has been left invitingly aff the sneck.

Sneck has another connection with craftiness. A sneck-drawer was once used to describe a cunning, deceitful person, while craftiness or duplicity can be known as sneck-drawing, a word that can also be used as an adjective meaning crafty or wily

Sneck can also act as a verb. Predictably it literally means to fasten a door or gate latch or to make a catch secure. It can refer to locking up or locking in someone or something or to switching off something such as an electrical appliance, but it also has a very painful meaning. Should you sneck your finger you have probably closed a door, drawer or something of the kind without removing the said finger. The result? A yelp of agony and probably a few accompanying expletives.

The finger-injuring meaning of sneck is actually the one that I myself am most likely to use. Perhaps this is because I do not actually have any gates or doors that have latches. Perhaps it is because I should pay more attention when shutting doors and drawers.

Sneck can play a part in men’s head gear. A snecker-doun (pronounced to rhyme with soon) is a man’s cloth cap, known in Scots as a bunnet, with a stud fastener on the peak.

Unlike snib, sneck sounds as though it might be Scots—and indeed it is, although it is sometimes to be found also in the speech of parts of northern England. The word first appeared in Scots in the fifteenth century and it was also to be found in northern Middle English. Apart from that, little is known of its history. It falls into that well-known category of origin uncertain.

The phrase sneck up was certainly known in English in the sixteenth century because it was used by no less a person than Shakespeare. He used it as an interjection meaning shut up and, not surprisingly, it sounds a bit old-fashioned now. Slang has changed quite a lot over the centuries since Shakespeare’s time, much of the change having come from the other side of the Atlantic.

Part of the fun of writing this article is in coming across interesting, but now rather obscure, phrases. Into this category comes sneck your daidlie. This expression sounds rather rude, but it actually means to be overcome with strong emotion. It is strange that we have an expression for such an outpouring of feelings when traditionally this is not something that Scots tend to indulge in. When did you last sneck your daidlie?

What do you call the little metal button that you press down on the back of a Yale lock to hold the bolt in or out? You must surely, at some point, have pressed it down to prevent the door from locking as you nip out without your keys to fetch something. It is highly possible that you have been the victim of an exceptionally strong gust of wind that slammed the door shut and locked you out anyway.
In reply to my own question I call the metal button a snib. Until very recently I thought everyone did. However, when I asked someone the other day to put the snib down while she went out to get something from her car the response was ‘The what?’
Remembering that the person lacking this particular piece of linguistic knowledge was from south of the border, it suddenly dawned on me that snib must be one of those Scots words that trick you by not sounding particularly Scots. Also, unlike many Scots words, snib is in such common use that it could easily be assumed to be English.
What on earth do people use instead of snib? The result of a straw poll suggested that catch was the most favoured word by those ignorant of the existence of snib, although some people opted for latch. Of course, in common with many words, the use of snib does not stop at the border and it is also to be found on some lips in the north of England.
The noun snib is also used to refer to a catch or small bolt for fastening a door or window. It was originally used to refer to a small piece of wood which was inserted into a door latch so that it became quite fast and could not be raised from the outside.
When it is not associated with doors and windows snib has several other meanings. It can mean a check or form of restraint, a rebuke, a rebuff or snub, or a calamity or reversal of fortunes. Also it can be used of a short steep hill or incline.
As is the case with a huge number of words, the origin of snib is uncertain and it is unclear whether all the meanings given here are actually from the same word. Snib in the sense of catch or bolt may be from a Low German word snibbe meaning a beak or beak-like point. The rebuke or rebuff meaning may be associated with the English word snub which, in turn, may have come from the Old Norse word snubba.
Snib can also function as a verb meaning to fasten, bolt or lock a door or a window. If you fail to snib a window and a passing burglar creeps in you might well find that your insurance company is reluctant to pay you any compensation for the loss of your stolen goods.
The verb also has other senses corresponding to the noun and can mean to check or restrain, to rebuke or punish, or to rebuff or snub. In addition, it can mean to shut someone or something in, to cut off or slice, to cut short or trim something, or to curtail something. Next to the bolt meaning the verb sense that I am most familiar with is to rebuff, as in I went over to speak to her but she snibbed me and walked away.
The cut off or trim meaning of the verb snib brings us the adjective snibbet. As applied to hair, snibbet means cropped very close. Such hair seems to be very fashionable among young and middle-aged men these days, possibly because it draws attention away from incipient baldness. Perhaps hairdressers should adopt the word and advertise snibbet cuts.

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.

Pitcure: Creative Commons

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.

Casey in pictures

Whatever happened to the smirr that was formerly as regular a part of the Scottish summer as midgies? Now the smirr, a Scots word meaning fine rain or drizzle, has been replaced by regular bouts of teeming rain coming down in stair rods reminiscent of monsoons.  I suppose climate change will be held responsible for this.

Whatever the reason, there seems to have been water, water everywhere for weeks now. Rainwater has been skooshing down the gutters, often ending up in great puddles when the drains cannot cope.

You can probably guess from the context what the Scots verb skoosh means. When applied to water, it means to gush or spurt out. The word skoosh, which has the alternative form scoosh, imitates the sound of water engaged in this activity and so is onomatopoeic in origin.

Apparently, skoosh did not make a written appearance in Scots until quite late on in the nineteenth century, but it sounds like the kind of word that might have been used orally for a while before being committed to paper. In fact, I am not sure how they coped without it

As to its use, if you suddenly develop a faulty kitchen tap which refuses to be turned off you may well find water skooshing uncontrollably all over the place. Liquids, other than water can also be said to scoosh. For example, if you cut yourself very badly with an ultra-sharp kitchen knife or, worse, if someone stabs you, you may well see your blood skooshing out of the wound as you frantically try to locate the first-aid box– or reach the phone to dial for emergency help. On a lighter note, if a bottle of fizzy drink, whether soft or alcoholic, has been shaken over-vigorously, its contents are liable to skoosh over the shaker and anyone else in the near vicinity.

Solid objects can also be said to skoosh under certain circumstances. Sometimes water or other liquid is involved, but a certain degree of speed and a swishing sound are usually present. It has been a common part of the Scottish summer experience to date to have cars and buses skooshing past you as you wait at a bus stop and get drenched by the water the vehicles throw up. Should you escape to a café to dry out you will probably hear the coffee machine skooshing noisily away in the background.

Children and skooshing commonly go together. You will see the young merrily skooshing down the slides in play parks and you will have to take smart evasive action when they skoosh round corners on their skate boards, or scooters.

Skoosh can also mean to squirt something at someone or something. Thus, children can skoosh water from water pistols at each other. People often skoosh flies, wasps and the like with some form of insecticide, although more sensitive souls take the trouble to remove them from their plate of food or jar of jam and place them outside so that they can fly in again. A spray used for this purpose, or, indeed, for other purposes, is known as a skoosher.

Skoosh can also act as a noun meaning a splash, spurt or jet of water, or other liquid. For example, you can borrow a skoosh of perfume from your friend, but it would be as well to get her permission first in case she smells the evidence on you. Or you may need to apply another skoosh of sunscreen to your child, if you are going abroad, but, if you are on a staycation here, you might well not need to.

You may well add a skoosh of tonic water to your pre-dinner gin or a skoosh of water to your whisky. Some may even add a skoosh of lemonade to whisky, although hopefully not if the whisky in question is a good malt. Such a habit has resulted in a fizzy soft drink, such as lemonade, becoming known as skoosh.

Skoosh as a noun has a meaning unrelated to water. Also found in the form skoosh case, it can be used to refer to something that is very easy to do or deal with. Thus, a student might claim to have found the Highers a skoosh, although it would be as well to wait until after the results are out before voicing such a claim out loud. As you might expect, skoosh is often to be found in the world of sport. To skoosh it is to trounce the opposition.

What is definitely not a skoosh in the sense of easy task is the laying of the new Edinburgh tram system which seems to be taking forever. Why am I mentioning this?  Trams were once known as skoosh-cars from the noise made by the wheels on the tracks. I think the planned system is intended to be a good deal less noisy, but it could be a while before we find out.

More and more people across the world are learning English as a foreign or second language. It is one of the few growth industries. Many of these learners become very proficient in the language and so, when they visit Britain, they find it very easy to make themselves understood. They may find it surprising, though, to find out that it is not always so easy to understand what the locals are saying in reply.

Although the UK is geographically quite small in size, linguistically there are many variations from region to region. The learner will probably have learnt RP, or Received Pronunciation, supposedly proper English as spoken by those at the upper end of the English social and educational scales, especially originally those in the area around London. However, the vast majority of native speakers do not talk in that way.

Visitors to Scotland will experience several different forms of pronunciation as they travel through the country. Some of them at least will almost certainly encounter the form of speech known as pan loaf. This is the name given not to an accent that is native to any particular region, but to a very affected way of speaking used by people who wish to seem ultra-refined and to appear to be a few rungs further up the social ladder than they actually are. They affect this style of speech in order to impress others, but, of course, they very often achieve the opposite effect and end up being ridiculed.

Talking pan loaf has its origins in a type of bread. A pan loaf refers to a loaf that is baked individually in a pan or tin and has a thin, smooth crust all round it. This contrasts with a plain loaf which has crust just on the top and bottom, the crust on top being darker and harder, and is baked in batches. Pan loaves were more expensive and were thought to be favoured by more genteel eaters some of whom were likely to speak pan loaf or pan loafy, as it is sometimes known.

Pan in Scots shares some of the meanings of the word in English, especially a cooking vessel of some kind. The word is Old English in origin and has linguistic connections with German pfanne, Dutch pan and Swedish panna.

Staying with the cooking theme, we have pancakes in both Scotland and England, but they are different in form. The pancake cooked in Scotland, like the one cooked in England, is a round flat cake made with batter. However, the Scots one is much smaller and thicker than the English one. In England the Scots pancake is sometimes known as a drop scone or Scotch pancake.

Those with a sweet tooth like to put loads of jam on pancakes. Those with an even sweeter tooth like to sook (suck) another Scottish pan favourite, a pan drop. Also known as a mint imperial, this is a type of hard round white mint sweet traditionally loved by old ladies and used as a breath-sweetener by people who wish to hide the fact that they have been drinking alcohol. Beware. People with too sweet a tooth can be rendered toothless by overindulging in these.

On a more savoury note, there is pan jotral, also found in the plural form. This refers to leftovers or to odds and ends of food of the kind that lie around in your fridge. The term originally referred to a dish made from the offal of slaughtered animals, or to such offal itself. The thought of that makes me feel rather squeamish and so I will move swiftly on.

In Scots pan can also be used to refer to the skull or cranium. If you are of a violent turn of mind, and perhaps seeking vengeance on someone, you might threaten to knock their pan in. You can also knock your own pan in. This does not mean that you are self-harming, but that you are working very hard so that you are completely exhausted. Poor you! Just as well the holidays are coming up.

A midden. Picture:  Chiara Marra

A midden. Picture: Chiara Marra

This week I am staying with last week’s theme of waste (see keech). The subject is midden which originally in both Scots and English meant a pile of animal keech as found in a farmyard, otherwise known as a dunghill. The word originated in Old Norse and came to us from Middle English myddyng.

In both Scots and English midden then came to mean a pile of rubbish generally. The word still exists in English, but it is generally regarded either as rather old-fashioned or archaic or dialectal. This did not happen in Scotland where midden has gone from strength to strength.

From being a rubbish tip, a compost heap or a domestic ash-pit, midden came to mean a bin for refuse, or dustbin, and its contents. In some places it was used to refer to the area at the back of tenements where communal dustbins were kept. Midden kept pace with developments in sanitation and came to be used to describe the domestic rubbish put out for collection by the relevant local authority.

What is often now known as bin day, the day on which refuse is collected, was frequently known as midden day. Of course, in these days of recycling there are often several midden days in the week, one for cardboard, one for glass and so on.

The bin lorry (I am not sure what the current politically correct official term for that is) in some parts of Scotland was known as the midden motor. Another name for this was midgie motor and this was manned by midgie men.

A midden raker, also midgie raker, was someone who went through other people’s rubbish in the hope of finding something that they found useful or valuable. If the raker was female she was known as a midden mavis. The modern equivalent of midden rakers are to be found driving round skips. Middens where the most valuable discarded items were likely to be found, mostly in areas where the rich lived, were known as lucky middens.

Midden can be used figuratively of either a place or a person. A kitchen that is in need of a good clean can rightly be described as a midden, as can a car that is full of assorted sweet wrappings, crisp packets, juice cartons, decaying banana skins and less savoury objects. A knacker’s midden is an extreme example of either of these. A person dubbed a midden is also often in need of a good clean or at least a rigorous tidy up. Alternatively, a midden can be a particularly greedy person or animal.

The midden heid literally refers to the top of a dunghill, but figuratively it can be used to indicate a person’s home territory or environment. A middenstead is the site of a midden or, figuratively, a person’s usual haunt or stamping ground.

Midden has brought us some expressive idioms. If you are described as either in the moon or the midden you fluctuate between two extremes of mood. Should you look at the moon till you fall in the midden you have let yourself be carried away by your dreams and ambitions until you are brought back to earth with a bump to face harsh reality. To marry a midden for its muck has nothing to do with hitching yourself to an unhygienic person, but means to marry someone for their money and disregard any other considerations.

I said above that midden in English is generally regarded as being archaic or dialectal. However, there is one notable exception. Midden has a specific archaeological sense which is still current. Often known as kitchen midden, this midden refers to the site of an old tip or dump for domestic waste, such as bone, fragments of pottery, shells, artefacts and so on, discarded by our ancestors of long ago at their settlements. Apparently, there is much to be learned about their lives, habits and diets from kitchen middens. I wonder what future archaeologists will make of landfill sites.